The Hopefulness Of An Onion
You have a simple, stress-saving secret in your kitchen.
Over 50 years ago my mom received a bit of unusual advice from her grandmother.
They were cooking lunch in my great-grandparents tiny home when Mom was 20 years old and a new bride.
My great grandmother said,
“Sometimes when you are running behind and you have people or your grouchy husband coming home for supper — buy yourself some time and fry an onion in butter and set the table.
The smell of fried onion makes people happy. They hope that something good is coming. And seeing a set table makes them patient.”
Mom always laughs when she tells the story and so do I. (I know Mom used this piece of old-fashioned advice often!)
I’ve always loved the story and hey — I’ve also taken the advice.
I don’t have a grouchy husband (he’s endlessly cheerful and a great cook) but sometimes, I have been running behind when people were hungry and it was my turn to cook. (Ever happen to you??)
Life catches us off-guard sometimes. But that doesn’t mean we want to feed people something mediocre or make them feel unwelcome.
And setting the table and frying an onion in butter, well — they bloody well work.
Here is my 10-minute shortcut when people are expecting to be fed.
First, I grab my wooden butcher block and cleaver and go to town on a few onions. (I always have a bag of yellow onions hanging out in the pantry.) No fancy dicing is required. Rough chop them and put your heart into it.
I roll the onions into my ancient thrift-store cast-iron frying pan with a goodly glob of butter. And I also add a little glug of olive oil too and a tiny bit of sugar or a small splash of balsamic vinegar to get the kind of caramelized action I want to happen faster. Let them slowly simmer for about 20–30 min.
Do not let them burn, I beg you. There’s nothing about burned onions that says: Welcome — good food ahead.
Then set the table. Put out a bottle of wine with glasses and a small dish of olives or nuts on another wooden board. It helps keep the wolves of hunger at bay.
Guests walk in and say,
“Wow — it smells so good in here!”
They have no idea I’m scrambling and scrounging behind the scenes because I was writing, or maybe watched one more episode of Outlander, or was out in the garden and lost track of time.
And somehow, weirdly, my onion trick always works out.
The pasta is better with caramelized onions. So is the frittata, homemade pizza, and soup. Those elegant onions can now stand-alone or they can blend in and provide the backdrop.
Your choice. Pretty much anything with a tangled pile of caramelized onions is going to make people happier.
You can count on it.
Onions are humble and mighty like that.
I’m not the only one who loves the overlooked onion.
A cookbook writer I adore, Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, roasts a large batch of onions on a Sunday afternoon and then uses them throughout the week.
Yes. Baked onions can sit in your fridge for seven days and no one will know and no one will die.
I think Tamar and my great-grandmother would have gotten along like a house on fire.
I told someone once about my great-grandmother’s advice and she said,
“Well — that was a sexist piece of advice she gave to your mom.”
I rolled my eyes at her. She had missed the point.
Because — please — give an 85-year-old farm woman in 1966 a freaking break.
In her long life, she had discovered a few strategies that made her days easier. She’d had a loving husband who worked in the fields all day with horses and she had 4 kids. She worked from home and hey — sometimes life had been a little crazy that day or she got caught up watching Coronation Street (BBC lovers can smile at this).
I think of cooking onions and setting the table as hints to your hungry audience of what goodness lies ahead. The fact that they bought me some time, is also delicious.
A simple act of frying onions in butter creates momentum, fills the air with their sensuous fragrance and it helps turn ordinary into the extraordinary.
So I stand rooted behind my great-grandmother’s stress-saving onion advice.