Yesterday I made a big batch of tomato sauce. The occasion was an evening of pizza making, and when I need something that simple, I tend to make more than necessary and freeze the leftover, so I will have something handy for when I am too lazy to cook or unexpected guests show up. I can see an arrabbiata pasta later in the week.
Then, there are those days when my pantry looks as if I have taken a 3 month vacation and just returned: my excuse is that, working from home, and living in the wilderness, sometimes I just can’t be bothered to drive all the way to the market. On those days, I consider the onion.
I always have a couple of the humblest and sturdiest vegetables in one of my handmade yellow bowls. They are basic staples, like dry pasta and rice, unlike those ingredients one buys for some recipe or other which keep on lurking at the back of the fridge for weeks, until finally they reach their expiration date and I have no more excuses for not throwing them out. I am looking at you buttermilk, creme fraiche and gigantic bunches of celery ribs.
Onions have become my friends in the last ten years or so. For the longest time they were tied to memories of a trip to Russia, when it was still the Soviet Union and it hadn’t opened to the west yet and all I remember eating were onions and potatoes for a week straight. Then there was the unfortunate indulging of sweet and sour onions that left me burping an entire night away, in the company of my dog at the time, Attila, vowing never to touch another onion for as long as I lived.
You can see how onions never quite made it to my dinner centerpieces but were always an ingredient on the road to some dish that called for it. Until I realized that the caramelization process rids the onion of all its pungency, sweetens it beyond recognition, makes it more digestible and can even make an excellent main course.
My go-to dinner dish on neglected pantry nights is a simple pasta with caramelized onions. If you have some creme fraiche handy (or even some yogurt or heavy cream), all the better but a nice, fruity olive oil will do in a (desperate) pinch. The only trick here is to cook the onions slowly, letting them take their time, without hurrying the process of caramelization along, ending up with a sort of onion confit. If you have any leftovers, use them to brighten up sandwiches, meat dishes or eggs. No sugar necessary. The slow heat will render the onions supersweet.
If you are feeding four people, start with 4 or 5 medium-sized yellow onions. Peel them and slice them, not too thinly. Coat a frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, let it heat on medium heat and add the onions. Move them around a bit with a wooden spoon, until they are all coated with oil, add salt and partially cover the pan and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Let cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring them now and then, until the onions are brown, soft and nearly the consistency of jam.
In the meantime, cook about 400g (1 pound) of your pasta of choice in plenty of boiling and salted water. Before draining it, reserve about 1/4 cup of cooking water. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot with most of the cooking water, 3 or 4 tablespoons of creme-fraiche (or heavy cream or a combination of the two), a little bit more olive oil and the onions. Mix everything together and cook it for a minute or two. Serve immediately. Add Parmesan, if you wish.
*The title is humbly borrowed from one of the most brilliant food essays ever written: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace