“If you ever find yourself longing to cook a good vegetable but there is none in sight, get a deep pot and dig eight to ten plain, big, dusty onions from your pantry, or the cold, dark onion bin at your nearest store. Then caramelise them.”
…how Tamar Adler starts the chapter, How to Find Fortune, in her book, An Everlasting Meal. And of course she’s right. To a few basic ingredients, caramelised onions are as transformative as a good bottle of olive oil (or my staple: a jar of salty anchovies). It’s thrifty luxury, slathered on hot toasts with an egg on top, or topped up with stock to make onion soup, or folded into an omelette. Tamar suggests sizzling caramelised onions and anchovies in a hot pan, then tossing through pasta, breadcrumbs and parsley for the Venetian bigoli in salsa. Sounds good.
Anna Del Conte does something similar in her book, Italian Kitchen. Penne in salsa di cipolle is a sweet, simple ode to the humble red onion, and the results of my fridge raid last night. Caramelised slowly over a low heat until reduced to a sticky jam, Anna adds Marmite for lovely salty umami. Tossed through hot pasta with butter and Parmesan, it is medicine for a cold winter’s night.
Caramelising onions is easy enough. Very finely slice them, then cook them in a good amount of oil and/or butter over a low heat for around 45 minutes to an hour. You can leave it to transform itself into sweet stickiness, while you get on with other things.
If you’re making this for less people, I’d advise cooking the same quantity of onions and saving it for the following days. Try it on crisp pizza bases with rocket and olives, or re-heat in a wok with crispy tofu and a little soy, or stick to pasta but add sardines or anchovies into the sauce. Yum.
Anna Del Conte’s penne in salsa di cipolle
Adapted from Italian Kitchen
500 g red onions
½ teaspoon Marmite
1 teaspoon plain flour
350g pasta (I used shells, Anna uses penne)
1 knob of butter
Peel and very finely slice the onions, then add to a lidded frying pan over a medium-low heat with a few tablespoons of oil and a little sea salt. Turn down the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes, or until the onions are soft, but not coloured, stirring frequently.
Stir in the Marmite and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the flour, mixing it in thoroughly, then pour in 100ml of boiling water. Keep stirring until it’s simmering, then put on the lid and simmer over a very low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, or until reduced, stirring often. Add a few tablespoons of hot water if it becomes too dry, and season to taste.
Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Drain well, add to the onion sauce and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the butter until melted. Finely grate over the cheese, then serve.
Until the next time…