Feeling blue? Got a cold? Try my sure-fire mood-enhancer: caramelize some onions. No, really, it works. Here’s why:
–It is cheap, so one does not feel guilty about doing something self-centered.
–It takes just the right amount of concentration to keep one’s mind off self-destructive, whirligig thinking but not so much that one can’t mind-putter while one works.
–The repetitive nature of the prep allows one to practice and perfect one’s onion-cutting technique, which makes one feel successful, which is a great way to feel better about oneself.
–It takes time, so one has to slow down to accomplish it. One can work on other tasks, too, but one can’t run away.
–It may produce tears, which are cleansing.
–If one is sick, it may unclog one’s stuffed nose, which has to be helpful.
–It involves all five senses, which is grounding. One handles the papery skin and smooth peeled orb of the onion, the knife, and the hot skillet; one hears the gently sizzling mass of slices in the pan; one smells the aromas of the cooking – an odor at once invigorating and calming, comforting and intoxicating. One’s eyes monitor the progress of the onion pieces from firmly-structured to collapsing cell walls to lightly-colored to deeply caramelized. Finally, one tastes, although this last step could be forgone because the perfume is so rich in itself.
–It produces something of value. When one is down or ill, one may feel aimless as well. Caramelizing onions says, “I am occupied with something useful.”
And of course, caramelized onions really are a treasure. They enhance almost anything savory. Combined with the defatted broth from a pot roast, they are transformed into many people’s favorite soup – French onion. They can be stirred into creamed vegetables or folded into an omelet. They are a key ingredient in Quiche Lorraine. They are a fine addition to pasta sauces, casseroles made up of leftover bits of meat and a starch, or a pizza. They are delicious added to the top of a burger or other hot sandwich. Use some to make real onion dip – stir them into equal parts mayonnaise and sour cream and season to taste. They freeze and reheat well, but they also keep for days in the refrigerator. Everybody ought to keep a jar of them in there – both the making and the having are one of my prescriptions for good mental and gastronomic health.
Caramelized Onions for Everyone
Yields about 3 cups or so
3 lbs. yellow onions
2 T. fat – butter or neutral-flavored oil like canola
salt and pepper
1 t. granulated sugar, optional
Peel the onions, cut them in half from root to blossom end, lay them flat side down and slice into medium slices. Heat the fat in a heavy large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions, a few pinches of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and stir to coat the onions with the fat. Turn the heat down to low and cook, stirring now and then, until the onions are a deep golden brown. They will be sticky and jam-like in consistency. Stir more frequently as the browning intensifies to prevent sticking, scraping the bottom of the pan as you stir. (The sugar may be added about half-way through the process to promote browning, if desired.) Toward the end, the onions usually seem to lose some of the stickiness and appear more separate again, but that may be just my imagination. The caramelization is rushed at one’s peril. Keep the heat on low and expect it to take a long time. I have been cooking some onions while I write and do other tasks and they have been sautéing for well over an hour. I should think 45 minutes would be a minimum. Much depends on the heaviness of your pan and the ability of your burner to go low, low, low. When you’ve got the color and consistency you like, turn off the heat and let the onions cool. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.
Feel better? Now get up and go cook something good.