Monday, January 11, 2010

Lady Marmalade

Confiture d'oignons... It sounds so sexy in French, so much better than 'caramelized onions'. But a little light flashed in my head today at work when someone asked me 'Is that marmalade?'

Why yes, it is marmalade. Onion marmalade. And it has such a luxurious mouth feel that it is absolutely worth the tears and red eyes from chopping 2kg (5lbs) of onions, and three hours of stove time.

Yes folks, you read right: three hours on the stove!
But no worries, it's low maintenance: I spent most of the time in front of the idiot box, darning a favourite, old sweater that has seen better days. Ideally, one would cook the onions over a slow-burning wood stove or an Aga, but it is not an ideal world... A regular electric or gas cooker on a very low setting does the trick though, and maybe after an initial stove top sweating session, CrockPot can take care of the rest. In any case, the end result will be worth every effort!

So to the onions then. Any amount you are willing to chop is good enough, but you should make it worth your while and go for at least 2kg. Any less, and there just won't be enough confiture.

There is no need to chop too finely, about 5mm (¼") is okay, as the prolonged cooking would render thin shards down to a pulp. If you happen to have other alliums hanging about your pantry, you can throw them in too: shallots, leeks and garlic, all are welcome as long as they're kissing cousins.

Next you need butter. At least 1 tablespoon (30g) per kilo of onions, but no more than 3. If you are avoiding butter, a neutral oil is okay -you do not know what you are missing!- but you might have to add a generous pinch of sugar to help the caramelisation along.

Season with coarse salt -if you have, about a scant teaspoon per kilo- or ½ tsp of fine. Onion, butter and salt are a beautiful trinity, but you can -I do- add flavour enhancers to the lot. A bay leaf and a few sprigs (or pinches) of thyme are classic additions; I had some fresh sage dying to get used, so I threw it in. Star anise, juniper berries, long pepper, cloves, nutmeg or allspice could also be nice.

Get everyone nice and cozy and sweating in a large pot: the bigger the cooking surface, the shorter the stove time. Keep stirring the onions over medium high heat until they begin turning translucent. Turn the heat down to low, and go about your business for the next half hour or so. Next time you check up on your onions, they should have exuded quite a bit of juice, turn your cooker to its second to lowest setting, and check in an hour later.

When all the juices have cooked off, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and check back half an hour later. The onions should start colouring a bit, it might even stick in some spots. Give it a good stir, and you can go back to reading your book. Or, if you are getting impatient, turn the heat up to medium, and keep a close watch. When the onions start sticking all over the bottom of your pot, start stirring constantly. Eventually, the onions will become an even, golden and fragrant brown. There might be some juices left: that's okay if you intend to consume every last bit of onion marmalade on the spot. However, if you want to keep the comfit for  a wee longer, take a few spoonfuls for eating right away, and return the rest to a low heat and let it cook some more.

If you've chosen to leave your marmelade to its own devices, you may eventually notice that your home is embalmed in a wonderful cloud of onion-yness. Run to the stove!

The onions may have stuck to the bottom of the pot, they may even have burnt a little. No worries: take the pot off the heat, stir everything about to assess the damage. If everything scrapes easily off the bottom,  all is okay. Check to see if all the juices have cooked off. If not, return to the stove top, and keep an eye on it.

If there are some stubborn burnt bits, taste the marmalade before you chuck it all out. Often there is barely any bitterness at all, or just enough to cut the sweetness of the onions. If you like the bitter notes, leave the whole pot to cool overnight; in the morning, all the burnt bits will have melded into the marmalade, and you will have a pleasantly bittersweet onion comfit.

If your onions are really bitter, save what you can, start a new batch, and combine the twain. If that sounds like too much trouble, make onion soup.

Two kilos of onions will yield about 375mL (±12oz) of marmalade. It may seem like a whole lot of work for nothing, but let me tell you what you can achieve with a jar of caramelized onions:

Instant onion soup: A cup of boiling water/ veggy or chicken stock/ amber ale  with a couple tablespoons of caramelized onions, and you've got a cup of soup like you've never had before. Add some cheese on toast, and you've got a meal.

Warm potato salad: This one is a no-brainer. Freshly boiled potatoes, marmalade, a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Add a few Moroccan olives: a flavour explosion if ever there was one.

The best sandwiches ever: If you like a Ploughman's lunch, that jar of onions makes a passable fill-in for Branston pickles -which I am unable to find in Montreal. It's not quite the same, but it still makes for a mighty tasty cheese sandwich. It's also a good foil for bacon, if you are into bacon sandwiches.

Braised savoy cabbage with caramelized onions is classically called embeurré de choux in French cookery. It requires lardons (thick cut, salt-cured bacon, cut into pinky-sized chunks) to be rendered to a crisp in  a bit of butter (!), to which one adds shredded savoy cabbage. Sauté over medium heat until the cabbages sweat, add a generous amount of onion comfit, stir about, leave to bubble over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes. The savoy cabbage keeps its colour well, despite the seemingly excessive cooking time. Vegetarians can leave the bacon out and never miss it: I don't even bother with smoked coconut for this dish, it's lovely without.

There are so many things you can do with a jar of confiture d'oignon. I promise you, you will not regret having spent all that time for one jar.

Bon app'!







Addendum: If my post on sprouts has peaked your interest, and would like to supplement your internet research, Mark Braunstein offers a free, downloadable sprouting chart that you can link to from here.

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