Onions are a vegetable that rewards you with sweetness when cooked with time and care. However, if you are careless or rush it can be quite unpleasant. I have some loves and hates when it comes to onion. My biggest hate is big chunks of undercooked onion in food; something that seems to crop up in stuffed potatoes and quiches. My greatest onion love is sweet, soft camarlised onion jam. This is a terrific topping for savory goods, such as pies or pizza. Last night we topped melba toast with slices of aged cumin-flavored gouda and a teaspoon of onion jam – it was a great combination.
Along with using a sharp knife, there are a couple of things that can be done to make chopping onions easier. I always leave the root on when I chop onions. This holds the onion together, allowing me to get a fine dice (see below) an gives a little end to hold on to when you are chopping.
To make a fine dice, first cut fine slices towards the root, taking care not to cut all the way through the root, then rotate the onion, hold the layers together and slice the little cubes away. If you are doing a very fine dice, essentially mincing the onion, put in an intermediate step of slicing toward the root again, but with the knife blade horizontal (parallel with the chopping board). I have never found a way to stop onions from making me cry. The only good advice I have been given is to learn to chop them quickly.
I always precook onions if they are to be added to something where they will not get direct heat, such as pies, casseroles and sauces. I sweat onions that are going to be added to a white or cream sauce or to a pie. Sweating means to cook them in a pan over a relatively low heat until translucent and without giving them color. This sweetens and softens them. Onions that will go into brown or tomato sauce or casseroles and wot-not are sautéed. This means frying them over a medium heat until they are lightly colored. There is a lot of flavor in the browning that will permeate your dish. However, take care not to burn onions as that burnt flavor will also permeate your dish (the same applies to garlic).
Caramelized Onion Jam
Finely slice 5 onions. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and sauté over a moderately low heat (barely sizzling) for 45 minutes or until soft, sweet and a dark caramel color. Towards the end add 1-2 table spoons of vinegar (I use white wine, but balsamic or cider would also be fine) and a heaped tablespoon of soft brown sugar. Cool and serve as desired. This will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week. The oil component may go lumpy in the fridge, but this will disappear when the onion jam comes back up to room temperature.