Category Archives: Ingredients Information

Homage to the onion

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.

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A note about vanilla

Vanilla is a magical spice that is almost universally known. However, it’s also a spice that is available to buy in several forms, some significantly better than others. In my opinion the best balance of flavor, convenience and cost effectiveness is vanilla bean paste (pictured).

Vanilla Beans Although these beasties are expensive ($15 NZD for 3 pods) they have an immense flavor that can be imparted to special meals. There are a couple of ways I still use these over my preferred vanilla bean paste. First, when I am making something special like Crème brûlée, I use beans to flavor the milk and cream. I add the vanilla to the milk and cream the night before making the Crème brûlée so they have enough time to impart flavor. Split the beans lengthwise and scrape the seeds from inside the pods by using a knife perpendicular to the pod and scraping along the length of the pod. Add both the seeds and the pods to the milk and pick the pods out the next day before making the Crème brûlée. Second, I tuck them whole into a jar of sugar and let them impart their flavor over a month or more. This sugar is perfect for making pavlova, meringues or macaroons.

Vanilla Paste A lot cheaper to purchase than beans, but still more expensive than the liquid vanilla forms. You can pay anything from $10-$40 NZD a jar and they usually work out about $2 per tsp/bean equivalent. The paste has way more flavor than the liquid forms and has the added bonus of the seeds, which look great in food. I use this almost everywhere I can’t justify the cost of whole beans.

Natural Vanilla Extract This is a liquid form that retails for around $5 NZD. It is an acceptable form of vanilla that is very useful for cakes and confection. However, it is important not to confuse this product with artificial or imitation vanilla which is commonly also branded as vanilla extract. If you are finding the labels confusing look for the price difference – a small bottle of artificial vanilla (it also comes in big plastic bottles) will retail for around $1.50 NZD. Just like maple syrup, once you start using the real thing the imitation becomes unpalatable.

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