Allium Iacta Est

I’m not sure there is anything in all of world cuisine better than the smell of onions gently sweating in butter. (For once I’d definitely recommend it over lard.) Even the garlic you add half-way through, just as the smell is reaching its peak, only adulterates it. I was obsessed with it when I started to cook, trying to capture and prolong it as far as possible, trying to get as much of it as I could into the finished dish. The smell is nearly complete in itself, a heady oxymoron of fat and acid, carrying both deep savoury tones and a hint of sweetness which nods towards the dark, caramel browns of onion soup, but more than anything it is the smell of possibility. Think of all of the things those onions could grow up to be! Sauces, stews, the rich juices around a roast, pilafs and pastas, hashes and frittata and fricassees – onions (I’m including their relatives) are the basis of almost everything savoury and delicious. It’s a shame that recipes mistreat them so badly. The first thing to do when looking over any recipe is to double the time it tells you to cook the onions for. I’m not sure why this is the case. Whether the length of time actually required to sweat an allium down into soft, giving delight is considered off-putting for the amateur cook, or whether it’s instinctive Masonic secrecy on the part of food professionals I don’t know, but it’s certainly irritating. If you’re making, say, a tagine, which rests on heaps of sweetly browned onions, then you’ll need to cook them for at least half an hour – and that’s if you’ve sliced them thinly.

When preparing onions for this purpose, you should always slice the (halved) onions from root to tip, and (generally) do it as finely as you can. This smashes across the structure of the vegetable, leading to quicker breakdown and cooking (slicing the ‘other’ way, across the middle in half-moons, is best for pickles and salads, when you want to maintain structure) – and more tears, unfortunately. I’ve forgotten most of the methods I’ve heard to avoid crying over your dinner. The latest was to hold a metal spoon in your mouth while you sliced, which I haven’t tried for fear of looking ridiculous. None of the tips seem to work, anyway. You get used to it after a while. Think of it as a period of mourning, if you like – weep for the onion’s brief moment of glory, bathed in gently sizzling butter, before other flavours drown out its potential – weep for the lost dreams of your own childhood. All of the things you could have grown up to be! But here you are, an adult crying hot tears over a common vegetable. To console yourself, remember that the acids which stimulate your lachrymal ducts are what make the onion so useful. You could have – you wish, for a moment, you had – chosen a large, milder Spanish one, but you went for the small brown English, and your stew will be the better for it, your cheap braising beef lulled into submission by those sharp juices.

Not that the milder ones don’t have their uses. In general, the simpler your recipe is, the milder your onion can be – and should be, in onion-centric dishes. (Cooked ones, that is – a pickled onion can be as sharp as you like). The fat Spanish example sits well in a soup or, appropriately, a tortilla, where they are one corner in a trinity of ingredients, but when you really want them to shine, the small white-skinned Italian is best of all. These are becoming increasingly available here, and are worth getting, and shaping your dinner around, when you can. You can burn them in their jackets and dress the smoked-caramel innards in pomegranate, and have them with lamb; they are excellent in place of the ubiquitous red in salads and salsas; and they are glorious cooked down en masse to form the basis of sardines agrodolce, Venetian liver, or the Neapolitan salsa Genovese (some social history in that name, which I haven’t delved into). This last, particularly, almost succeeds in capturing that essence of onion in a pan (although it also contains meat, the latter acts more as a seasoning to the vegetable, heightening the deep umami of the onion rather than the other way round) – almost, but not quite. Probably nothing can. The ancient Greeks, with a laudably scientific approach, noted the gap in savour between the smell and the taste of their sacrificial meat, and concluded that the aroma, lost with the bubbling bone marrow, went to feed the gods. Hopefully, somewhere, a small and smelly deity grows fat on the fumes of a thousand onions, and blesses us for the feast.

Egg, potato, onion

I think it’s fair to say that I am not generally a fan of fusion cuisines, especially when they are perpetrated unthinkingly. Culinary traditions are rich cultural artefacts, developed over hundreds or thousands of years; to interfere in that simply for the sake of dinner seems trivial, insulting. Pasta used as a dumping ground for leftovers, bacon flung irresponsibly into couscous; worst of all, fashionably exotic food terms flung around menus, misapplied until they lose their meaning (a ceviche of shallots, a carpaccio of pretty much anything), seem like cultural vandalism, a colonialist looting of an alluring past. (Yes, I have been told that I take things too seriously).

Having said that, everyone needs a go-to dish, a vehicle for the current contents of your fridge, a base around which to build supper or a lazy lunch when the shops are too far away or too closed and you don’t give a damn about culinary traditions. Brunch is a good occasion for such dishes; the whole affair suggests a cheerful dissolution, and disparate ingredients can be brought together with the unifying influence of toast or egg. I’m a big fan of the hash in this context, and many differences can be resolved with a base of toasted bread, but my favourite catch-all dish is probably a tortilla. A sturdy structure of potato, onion and egg can be adapted to almost any cuisine, sharpened with chilli or spice, warmed with chunks or strands of cheese, enriched with little nuggets of sausage or black pudding or ham, freshened with clean herbs and vegetables. I’m sure the Spanish would be outraged, and when I’m feeling particularly high-minded I try to justify this bastardisation, pointing to the tortilla-equivalents across the world – the markode of Algeria, the Arabic eggeh, the Italian frittata, the Persian kuku – but fundamentally I don’t really care. Tortilla are pretty much universally delicious, the sweet, umami-rich combination of potato, onion and egg hiding any weakness in the rest of the ingredients.

i’m not going to give a recipe for tortilla, as that is not really how something like this is cooked – quantities depend on what else you want to throw in, which in turn depends on mood and resources. Even the basic method is up for debate. I will, however give a few general observations on tortilla-making. I’ve eaten a lot in my time.

ESSENTIALS

onion

potato

egg

For your own sake, the onion and potato should be cut as fine as possible. I like the onion diced, and the potato first halved lengthways and then sliced across, but that is a personal preference. Sweet Spanish onions and small waxy potatoes are the way to go, I think; the potatoes need to hold their own in the cooking process.

Never boil the potatoes first – you lose so much flavour (yes, potatoes have flavour) and so much of their protein-enhancing umami that way, as well as missing out on the beautiful, fudgy texture they get from a purely oil-based cooking. Chips are tastier than boiled potatoes. Learn from this. Sweat the potatoes together with the onions in plenty of olive oil (nice olive oil – you can always reuse it) and a good amount of salt until they are tender. If you’re adding meat you might want to put it in now so everyone gets to know each other.

You want to eat this delicious combination as the main event. The egg should be the binding agent, not the star of the show; it’s not an omelette in that sense. Two or three eggs to a 10-inch pan is fine. Let the onion-potato mix cool a bit before you stir in the eggs, to avoid weird lumps. Add other bits like fresh herbs and cheese at this point too.

I know it’s wrong, but I always start my tortilla on the hob and finish in the oven – it skips the whole messy hassle of flipping it. If you do this, let it set and colour on the bottom before putting it in the oven, which will help it slip out of the pan later. If you must flip the tortilla, on your own head be it. Don’t have the oven too hot. Let the whole thing cool a bit before you take it out of the pan, and then some more before you eat it.

EXTRAS

I’ve got a Turkish-style tortilla in the oven at the moment, with bits of halloumi, sucuk sausage, green chilli, and plenty of herbs. Other things I have added in the past include –

ham hock

black pudding

pork sausage

merguez sausage

chunks of manchego

grated manchego

grated Dapple

roasted peppers

pickled chillies

marinated artichokes

handfuls of dill

paper-thin courgette slices

tiny broad beans

frozen peas

and probably loads of other things I’ve forgotten. 

Have a go.