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Let onions take center stage

What would we do without onions? Few foods insinuate themselves into as broad a range of dishes and culinary traditions as the ubiquitous bulb. Yet this ubiquity actually eclipses the onion itself, at least to some degree: It can be easy to take it for granted. Leave it out of a soup, for example, and you'll sense something is missing, but if that same soup is perfect, the onion rarely if ever gets any credit.

And, really, that's as it should be. Part of an onion's genius is that it merges with other ingredients to create a whole that's larger than the simple sum of its parts. Its flavor when cooked is not specific and pronounced like, say, cinnamon or fennel. Rather, it permeates a dish, contributing richness, depth and something that is almost impossible to describe but that we sense in its absence.

When we let an onion take center stage, rather than keeping it in its usual role as supporting player, it imparts a unique and refreshing pleasure. There's nothing like a sandwich of good sturdy white bread — I prefer sourdough — thinly sliced sweet onion, mayonnaise and lots of freshly cracked black pepper. Add a thin slice of room-temperature cheddar cheese and you might be tempted to call it a feast.

Roasted and grilled onions, especially grilled spring onions, are exquisite, good enough to make a meal or even a festival, as they do in northeastern Spain in late winter or early spring, when cal?ts are in season. Then, restaurants celebrate this unique allium — it is probably best described as a cross between a leek and a green onion — in a feast called the "cal?tada," which lasts through the short season. A single diner might be served 50, 60 or more grilled cal?ts at a single meal, and there are contests to determine who can eat the most. Trust me; it's worth a ticket to Spain at the right time of year.

Pickled onions are another delicious way to put onions at center stage, even as they serve as a condiment. Topping a salad, sandwich or, say, a roasted pork shoulder with sweet, salty, tangy pickled onions adds a delicious spark. Chef Mateo Granados made his cinnamon-scented pickled onions served atop Yucatan tamales popular at farmers markets throughout Sonoma County, and you can still enjoy them at this Healdsburg restaurant, Mateo's Cocina Latina.

These recipes are all easy and quick, based on pickling in vinegar. They are not fermented, a process that takes place in salt and sometimes salt and vinegar; it is a longer process, too. These, you can make in the morning and enjoy at dinner.

You can enjoy these onions in myriad ways, with curries and other stews, on sandwiches, with roasted meats, sausages and poultry and with cheeses. For the best results, use a vinegar that is rich in body and flavor, such as B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, O Zinfandel or DaVero Red Wine. Vivo Vinegars are quite good, too. Do not use balsamic vinegar in this dish.

Pickled Red Onions


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