Monday, June 28, 2010

Knowing your Onions.

Onions have been human food for millennia, and perhaps familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then disinterest. Food fashions come and go – beetroot and parsnips and celeriac and a host of other vegetables keep on getting rediscovered and are briefly novel and interesting again, but I don’t remember the same honour ever being given to the onion.

The onion has a long history of medicinal use, as a food for the poor, and as a flavouring ingredient – but seems to have only rarely been prepared and celebrated in its own right as culinary treat. Why is this? How could a mid-eighteenth century wife or nurse prepare ‘a cataplasm of roasted onions and bruised mustard seed’ as an ‘excellent external application for the piles’ (or the chilblains), and not be tempted by the aroma to pile the leftover cataplasm on the dinner plate? On the other hand, maybe a haemorrhoid medication could never be appealing for dinner.

Even by the mid-nineteenth century the onion was hardly a culinary delicacy, if we are to judge from the following opinion:

Great use is made of the onion in the United States; but I do not regard it as a very valuable esculent, except for medicinal purposes. It is somewhat stimulant and heating, as well as diuretic. Dr. Paris says it certainly contains a considerable portion of nourishment; but his manner of expressing his opinion appears to me, to imply doubts of the truth of his own statements. He relates, moreover, from Sir John Sinclair, that a Scotch Highlander, with a few raw onions in his pocket, and a crust of bread or some oatcake, can travel to an almost incredible extent, for two or three days in succession, without any other food. This is not very strange, however. Who could not travel, with crusts of good bread in his pocket, if in sufficient quantity? There is no better food in the world for a person who is to travel violently a few days, than this; but I have yet to learn that the raw onions would add much to the amount of real sustenance. They might serve as a condiment.
Since, however, the onion is much in fashion, it may be well to say that the best method of cooking it is either by boiling or roasting; and the worst by frying. The fried onion, either alone, or with apples, potatoes, or meat, is exceedingly indigestible and unwholesome; and to any but a perverted taste, highly offensive and disgusting. As a medicine, it is sometimes properly used raw.
[The young house-keeper: or, thoughts on food and cookery (Boston, 1839) by W.A. Alcott.]

I admit it. My taste is perverted. I love fried onions.

I do wonder what future readers will think of our current theories of food and disease (“How ridiculous! Back then, they actually thought BUTTER was BAD!”)

As for the ‘exceedingly indigestible and unwholesome’ combination of onions and apples, we have previously come across the very thrifty idea of onion-apple pies – for rough farm-workers of course.

What about this repeated connection of the Scots with onions? It is mentioned again in that very Scottish cookery book by ‘Mistress Margaret Dods’ (aka Christian Isobel Johnstone) - Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1826). The book does actually contain a recipe for roasted onions – to be eaten, not applied.

To Stew And Roast Onions
Scald and peel a dozen middle sized, or two or three Spanish onions. If old and acrid, parboil them, and stew very slowly for nearly an hour in good veal or broth, with white pepper and salt; thicken the sauce with a little white roux or butter kneaded in flour, and dishing the onions in a small hash-dish, pour it over them. A little mushroom catsup may be added or they may be browned. Onions are roasted before the fire in their skins, and served with cold butter and salt. They are in Scotland served with roasted goose or pork, and eaten alone or with roasted potatoes or red or pickled herrings. In the latter case we would recommend mustard as well as butter. Obs. Stewed and roasted onions used to be a favourite supper dish in Scotland, and were reckoned medicinal .The onions were stewed (after parboiling) in a butter sauce to which cream was put, i.e. the Sauce blanche of France.

Quotation for the Day

The onion being eaten, yea though it be boyled, causeth head-ache, hurteth the eyes, and maketh a man dimme sighted, dulleth the senses, ingendreth windinesse, and provoketh overmuch sleepe, especially being eaten raw.
John Gerard (1545-1611)


Leaking Moonlight said...

I am a fan of the onion too.

I live in the US deep South, and onion pie is on the menu regularly. It's lightly fried onion in an egg custard base, baked like a pie in a savory pastry. Nothing fancy, easy to make, delicious hot or cold, and just plain good for you.

I believe the tastiest food comes from the humblest of kitchens.

Anonymous said...

Since Jamie Oliver taught me (well not in person, obviously) how to make proper French Onion Soup - or as he calls it English Onion Soup - I've looked on onions with renewed respect - verging on awe!

And French onion tart is equally scrumptious... so it seems the French really know their onions, and aren't afraid to shove them centre stage.

Your (fabulous as always) article had me remembering some dish my mum used to make with onions studded with cloves. Unless I'm imagining it there was also white sauce involved.... wish I could remember what it was.

Anon 1:50 said...

Using medium to small onions in your baking dish under a spatchcocked chicken will yield an extremely delicious side dish!

The drippings that remain (for the gravy, of course) are delightfully scented as well!