Onions offer flavour and versatility

Onions hanging out to dry on a wall
Onions hanging out to dry on a wall

This week saw the start of the new term at schools and colleges across the country and for me it’ll most likely involve several trips to accident and emergency for the new catering students at the college I teach in!

This fresh-faced bunch will put on their shiny new chef’s uniforms and immediately think they’ll be able to chop an onion as fast and expertly as Gordon Ramsay without any prior training.

It’s fitting that an onion is the first thing you’ll learn about cooking professionally as it’s one of the most used and versatile ingredients. These alliums form the basis for stocks, soups, sauces and braised dishes and add an intense richness to a myriad of food.

French onion soup was one of the first “fancy” dishes I ever tried and it’s still a go to comfort dish for me. A seemingly simple concoction of stringy vegetables suspended in a rich wine and beef infused broth and topped with a cheesy crouton – how could you go wrong?

What I’ve noticed recently is onions don’t make you cry as much as they used to. Maybe I’ve hardened towards them but I remember peeling bags of onions when I was training with the tears streaming down my face – this was also a good camouflage for the incessant tirades from the head chef.

It’s wonderful how this hard skinned, reeky bulb can transform itself so much when it’s cooked. When you gently fry them in oil or butter, they go through an alchemist like process that results in a golden, soft and sweet mixture.

There are many varieties of onions including the daily used Spanish onion, red onions, shallots, scallions, and everything in between. Each of them have different uses but they all impart a smack of flavour to any style of cooking. Steak and onions is a time honoured combination that works in a number of tasty ways.

My first recipe this week takes this to a different level with the addition of local ale and some sugar for sweetness. The key is to cook the onions slowly first in oil, then allow them to melt into the ale and stock.

A pile of new season potatoes mashed and you’re sorted! Red onions have a sweeter nuance than the sharper white variety and give a sparkly crunch to salads. They’re also good roasted until they’re soft and I’ve combined these two preparations in a salad with crunchy hazelnuts and soft goat’s cheese.

Scallions are part of our DNA in this country and form a vital element in our national dish, champ, but they take on another profile if you grill them until they almost burn. When you combine this with creamy yoghurt, cream cheese and a hint of garlic and parsley, you have a dip that’s a lot more complex than the usual garlic and onion variety.

Not only are they an essential ingredient but onions are rich in vitamins A, B6, C and E. Nutritious and delicious.