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January 24, 2008

Onions (Recipe: onion bhaji) {vegan, gluten-free}

Onion1

Whenever I cook, I hear voices.

I hear Jacques Pepin, Diana Kennedy, Ina Garten and Martin Yan, all urging me to try, trust, experiment, enjoy.

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?

Onion bhaji

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.

Ingredients

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)
Sea salt
Raita, chutney or spicy tomato ketchup, for serving

Directions

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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Curried chicken wontons
Soupe a l'oignon, maison
Jambalaya

Comments

how fantastic this recipe! I know I must love it! Vidalia used to be my favorite... btw, like the name of Walla Walla :)

That is a lot of voices LOL! I too love onions and use them quite liberally in my dishes. Your onion bhaji is certainly spicy and delish!

Thank you for the link love, Lydia! I've made onion bhajis before, but it's been a while..

Ahhh Justin! I watched his program all the time when they had it on PBS. I can hear his voice in my head right now. I even have one of his cookbooks somewhere. Your picture of the onion is so lovely!

Hey, I'm almost out of my salt!!!!! No!!!!!!

These bhajis are a general favourite and found all over India. If you substitute 1/2 a cup of fine rice flour for chickpea flour, your bhajis will turn our real crisp.

Nope, I definitely cannot imagine life without onions! And don't tell me you have *never* rubbed onion on anyone's body (can't type any more...I am shaking too much with laughter)

I love onions...love carmelized onions, for sure! I just wish I could cut them without losing my makeup along away. The only thing I have found that helps....a little...is chewing bread while chopping. Weird, I know! But, my mama told me...:)

Great tip on keeping the onions on paper towels in the fridge - I was always stumped on that one! I find I cry more with yellow onions than I do with white. And, the voice I hear these days is my chef-instructor Chef Candy. I always hear her voice saying, "Always taste your food," and "Clean up after yourself!"

I couldn't live without onions. Love onion bhaji's too!

Another use for onions: When painting a room, leave an onion cut in half lying around - it helps to absorb the paint odours/fumes.

You know, I always want to laugh whenever I hear someone say "I don't like onions", because they are in EVERYTHING. In reality I think they mean they don't like raw onion (heck I don't either) but to me saying you don't like onion is like saying you don't like salt. Onion is a background note in almost every savory dish around.

Lydia, great Dan Aykroyd reference! That's still one of the funniest skits ever done on SNL... Oh dear, I've cut the dickens out of my hand!

No I cannot imagine life without onions. Nor without onion bhaji now. The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster #2 however...will I beamed away?

Dangit !!! I was doing fine with your voices and post. Until of course, you got to Justin. Then? He popped in to my head and read the rest. Thank you for that.

xo, Biggles

I always loved watching Justin!
I don't know that I always hear voices but I do sometimes and when I do, I really enjoy them as you seem to also! It's one of the joys of cooking.
Onions and garlic make almost any dish better.
Great post.

I'm catching up tonight, saw that you mention Andrew Zimmern in the tiffin/birthday post -- He shows a woman in North Africa making cous cous with goat, cutting a large red onion into dice, holding it in her hand! What a deft skill...my mother-in-law, now 90, loves onion sandwiches. Wasn't that an eyeopener of early marriage.

Gattina, I know you will love this. And yes, don't the white onions have the most beautiful names?

Meeta, I do love having a crowd in my kitchen!!!

Pille, your stuffed onions are gorgeous.

Sher, I'd love to see some of those old episodes again, I garontee! Now, about that salt -- email if you need more....

Aparna, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Thanks so much for the suggestion -- I will try substituting the rice flour.

Nupur, can't you just imagine rubbing raw onion on a wound? Talk about something that would make your eyes water!

Chris, I have two words for you: swim goggles! No kidding -- a woman in one of my cooking groups used them, with great success. Of course the rest of us couldn't stop laughing, but her eyes were perfectly dry.

TW, as always, I'm glad I'm not the only person who hears voices. Now you must tell us about Chef Candy. She sounds very wise.

Amanda, that's a great suggestion! One odor neutralizing another...

Courtney, same here, I really can't tolerate raw onion. But cooked onions are so necessary to almost everything that I can't imagine not liking them.

Curt, I could watch that skit over and over. I remember reading somewhere that Julia absolutely howled when she saw it -- she had a wonderful sense of humor and wasn't in the least bit offended.

Callipygia, if you try the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, do let me know! I'm not a drinker, so I'm sure it would blast me right into outer space.

Biggles, if you go on his web site there are little clips of some of his Justin-isms, I garontee, and it's so good to hear his voice. And the man could surely cook.

MyKitchen, a restaurant chef once told me that he always felt Diana Kennedy looking over his shoulder when he cooked -- and now I know what he meant. It's nice to hear voices in the kitchen, though it probably sounds a little bit crazy to some people.

Susan, that onion cutting method sounds scary -- but then, much of what Andrew Zimmern does scares me. Maybe eating onion sandwiches has contributed to your mother-in-law's good health and long life -- but I couldn't do it!

What a lovely simple recipe! I'm having friends over soon who have specially requested an Indian meal - so I guess we can start with onion bhajis now...

Sadly, the only voice I hear cackling in my ear is "HEY Y'ALL! ITS PAULA DEEN!" whenever I reach in the fridge for a stick of butter...

The bhaji sounds delicious and is something I always gobble up when given the chance. I'll have to add this to the list for the next time I cook Indian...

Great post!! I was just thinking about onions last evening while I was cooking up a new veg. soup recipe. They just add so much!!

Sabina ~

I don't think sleeping on an onions would 'cure' my insomnia (which, thankfully, I don't have.... I think it's because I do have fondness for Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters)
We eat rather a lot of onions, as well...

No, I cannot imaging life without onions, or cooking without them. And, your recipe looks like a good one. My mother loved onions (Vadalia her favorites) and put them in everything (including hamburgers). My sister and I like them cooked in a little oil and salt until carmelized and put on top of brown rice. No ... can't imagine life without onions Lydia.

Interesting that such a small percentage of red onions are grown.

Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck! Per the Monthly Mouthful, I hate onions! (I know....crazy!)

Forkful, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I hope this recipe fits into your menu!

Mike, thanks for that -- now Paula Deen's voice is drilling into my head, too...

Sabina, I don't think there's a single soup I make that doesn't have onions in it.

Katie, sleeping on onions would just make me cry -- or take up drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters.

Meg, I am one of those people who cannot eat raw onions, but I love cooked (especially slowly caramelized) onions.

Hillary, oh Hillary, how do you cook without onions? Or are you like me -- cannot eat raw onions? Crazy indeed!

Onion bhajis are one of my favorite things. I first ran into them when we lived in England, twenty some years ago, when they were on the menu of every Indian restaurant. They were round fat balls of crispy spicy fried onions. Lovely.

Christine, they are addictive, aren't they?!

Onions are an indispensable pantry ingredient. The pantyhose tip sounds pretty useful, once you get over the fact that there's pantyhose hanging in your kitchen (maybe hidden away in a walk-in-pantry).

Amy, I was thinking about that -- maybe fishnets are the way to go for hanging in the kitchen?!

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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