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O is for onions

Monday, January 17, 2011

There was a huge batch of onions – courtesy of my mother ­– to peel and cut up and I wasn't looking forward to it. If ever there was a time to have a robot servant, this would be it.

I consulted wikiHow's guide to chopping onions without tears. Freezing takes too long; cutting them under water – running water, I assume – is wasteful; chewing gum while cutting? Seems silly, and I can't stand chewing gum. I tried the burning candle near the chopping board, but still teared and my nose ran. These onions were really pungent.

Finally, I dug out my swimming goggles. I still had to breathe through my mouth but this was the recommendation from wikiHow that worked for me. The goggles have only ever been in the pool twice ­­– I hardly swim ­­– so it's good I've found another use for them. Their storage place is now in the kitchen drawer.

At the market last week, my mother saw some very good red onions and got a whole sack which she divvied up for her children. I wondered at first what I would do with so much, and worried that they would spoil before I got the chance to use all of them. But this weekend, I set about the task of peeling them. Once I did that I would have to use them.

Onion & pumpkin galette
With about half of the sliced bulbs, I made onion jam, which keeps well in the fridge and is a nice relish. I've used it in a vegetable frittata (recipe is at the same link as the onion jam) and this time, I made a free-form galette. This tart is often made with puff pastry, but since I had filo pastry, I went with that instead. It's really not much of a recipe so I haven't recorded it here. You'll have the instructions on the box of filo pastry for how to brush the sheets with melted butter or oil and layer a few together before filling and baking. I put in a layer of onion jam and some pumpkin slices that I had baked a few days ago, sprinkled the top with grated strong cheddar and scrunched up the edges of the pastry around the filling into a free-form shape, then baked the two little galettes I made at 180°C for about 10 minutes.

For help with another recipe, I turned to Starting With Ingredients by Aliza Green (I did a newspaper review of the book a while back) since Green has a chapter on cooking with onions, and the Senegalese Chicken Yassa looked uncomplicated. And lucky me, I also happened to have in stock all the ingredients in the recipe.

I used red onions instead of white onions as asked for in the recipe, but that didn't hurt the dish. If you like the sourness of lemon, you will be scraping up the remaining bits of sauce in the cooking pan after you dish out the chicken. Fans of onions as well will surely enjoy it. Here's some background information on the yassa and Senegalese food in general.

In her research, Green found out some very interesting information about onions. These are Very Important Vegetables, it seems. Here are some random facts:
  • In ancient Egypt, leaders took an oath of office with their right hand on an onion; onions were then a form of currency; and Egyptian mummies were set out for the afterlife with onions carefully wrapped in bandages to look like a little mummy;
  • Before competition of the Greek Olympic Games, athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice, and rub onions on their bodies;  
  • During the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant told the War Department he would not move his army without onions, and the next day three trainloads of onions were on their way to the front;
  • Julia Child said, "It's hard to imagine a civilization without onions", and Brillat Savarin declared that "The onion is the truffle of the poor."
I'm going to have to treat the onion with more respect.

Out of Africa
From Starting With Ingredients by Aliza Green
Serves 4

3 cups (about 2 large onions) sliced white onions (I used red)
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons finely chopped hot green chillies
1 teaspoon ground ginger (I grated fresh ginger root)
3 bay leaves (I used dried)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme (dried)
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup water
½ cup canola or vegetable oil, divided
1 (1-1.3kg) fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces (I used drumsticks)
  • In a shallow, nonreactive (not aluminium) baking dish, combine the onions, garlic, chillies, ginger, bay leaves, thyme, pepper and salt. Add the lemon juice, water, ¼ cup oil, and chicken. Marinate in the refrigerator at least 4 hours, or up to overnight. (I used a resealable plastic bag and threw in the lemon carcass as well.
  • Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade liquid, reserving both liquid and solids. (I discarded the lemon carcass here. The onions have turned pink from the reaction to the lemon juice.)
  • Heat ¼ cup oil in a large, heavy skillet (cast-iron preferred) and brown the chicken on all sides. Transfer the cooked chicken to a plate.
  • Pour off most of the oil from the skillet. Add the reserved solids to the pan and cook for about 5 minutes over moderate heat, or until the onions are soft and lightly coloured. Return the chicken (and any juices) to the skillet. Add the marinade, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer about 25 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Serve with hot boiled rice.

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