Onions (Recipe: onion bhaji)
Whenever I cook, I hear voices.
I hear Julia Child, and sometimes I hear Dan Aykroyd channeling Julia, encouraging me to keep going, even if what I'm creating looks like a googly mess.
I hear my grandmother, telling the little girl in me to keep stirring, keep chopping, pay attention.
When I cook jambalaya, I hear Justin Wilson.
A humorist, storyteller, and talented home cook who spent the first part of his career as a safety engineer inspecting warehouses in South Louisiana, he hosted a cooking show on public television in the 1970s and 1980s, before the rest of the country heard of blackened catfish, etoufeé and andouille.
From Justin Wilson I learned about the Cajun trinity, the mirepoix of flavorings that start every good soup and stew: celery, bell pepper, and onion. What he actually said was SEL-ray, bell PEPpah, and un-NYUANH, way up in the nasal back of his throat, and whenever I make anything that begins with the trinity, I hear his voice.
In fact, there's very little cooking that does not include onions, which have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. Of the total world crop, more than 87 percent is yellow onions, 8 percent red, and 5 percent white.
Yellow onions, all-purpose and full of flavor, add richness and a bit of sweetness to almost anything from French onion soup to chutney. Red onions lend their beautiful color and mild flavor to salads and stuffed dishes. Sweet white spring/summer onions, including Vidalia and Walla Walla, are traditional in many Mexican dishes, such as salsa and migas.
Stored properly in a cool, dry place, whole onions will keep for several weeks, or up to several months. I buy yellow onions in three-pound bags and, because I use them frequently, I keep them in a basket on my kitchen counter. You can keep them in the refrigerator, spread on a layer of paper towels in the vegetable bin; the paper towels will wick away the moisture. A screen or rack in a dry cellar works well, too.
Here's the strangest storage method I've read about, but not tried, from the Sweet Onion Source: Take a leg from a pair of clean sheer pantyhose. Drop an onion into the foot, and tie a knot right above it. Drop in another onion, tie a knot, and work your way up the leg. Hang this contraption in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place (perhaps not front and center in your kitchen...). When you need an onion, start at the bottom and cut below the lowest knot. Cut off as many onions as you need, and let the rest hang out.
A few fun facts about onions:
- According to the US Department of Agriculture, men consume 40 percent more onions than women.
- Russian Orthodox churches (think St. Basil's Cathedral, in Moscow's Red Square) are topped with onion-shaped domes because the onion's concentric rings are a symbol of eternity.
- An onion under the pillow is believed to ward off insomnia.
- In ancient times, Greek athletes rubbed onion on their bodies before the Olympic Games to bring them strength and endurance. In World War II, Russian soldiers rubbed onion on wounds, as an antiseptic. I have never ever rubbed onion on anyone's body.
- Parsley is the antidote to "onion breath."
- The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster #2 is one of six cocktails traditionally garnished with an onion.
Now, really, can you imagine life without onions?
Think spicy onion rings or tempura, and you, too, will be craving this wonderful snack food. This recipe takes inspiration from many sources. Makes 20-24, depending on the size of your onions.
2 large (or 3 medium) yellow or red onions, peeled, sliced cross-wise into 1/4-inch rings (do not separate, but if the rings fall apart, do not fret)
2 cups besan (chickpea flour)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, or more or less to taste
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp ground oregano, fennel pollen or cumin
1/4 tsp kosher salt
Oil for deep frying (peanut, canola or rice bran oil)
Raita, chutney or spicy tomato ketchup, for serving
Set the oil to heat in a deep fryer or deep sauce pan. In a large bowl, combine besan, cayenne, turmeric, oregano/fennel/cumin, and kosher salt. Stir with a whisk. Add enough water to make a batter the consistency of thick cream, so add the water slowly. Test the oil by frying a small bit of batter; it should sizzle immediately and rise to the top if the oil is hot enough.
Very carefully add 2-3 Tbsp of the very hot oil into the batter, and whisk to combine. The batter will sizzle, but this is what helps the bhajis crisp. In small batches, just a few at a time, dunk the onion slices into the batter and carefully drop into the oil. Don't crowd the pot, or the bhajis won't brown. Fry until golden all over, 2-3 minutes, turning occasionally. Lift onions out of the pot with a spider or strainer, and place on a platter covered with paper towels. Sprinkle with crunchy sea salt and serve hot, with raita, chutney or ketchup for dipping.