All food begins with onions.
Well, most food, anyway. Almost every savory dish in the world begins with a base of some kind of allium, a genus that includes onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, bulbs that grow green spikes and taste of pepper and sulphur.
You know food is happening when you smell the onions cooking, and it is impossible to consider eating in the modern world without the existence of alliums. We would be fed, perhaps, and nourished, but would miss their distinctively pungent, umami-esque flavor the way we'd miss percussion in music, a soul in an android or love in a marriage.
It is surprising, then, that it took so long for someone to write a world-class cookbook dedicated to the humble onion. "Onions Etcetera" from Burgess Lea Press is a new, gorgeously photographed, blissfully accessible cookbook by husband and wife team Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino, and devotes all of its purple-edged pages to the worship and consumption of alliums.
Winslow and Ambrosino live in New Jersey, but met in Santa Fe when both worked for the Santa Fe Reporter about 15 years ago. Ambrosino is a photographer, and Winslow was an editor for Gourmet magazine. "Onions Etcetera" is their first book together.
"The onion," Winslow said, "is an unsung hero. ... We wanted to show, with this book, the breadth of using alliums. For the bistec palomilla, you lade it with onions, the brisket with Sunday gravy uses three pounds of onions."
The recipes in "Onions Etcetera" are all blissfully accessible and designed to be made in a normal person's kitchen by someone who cooks after work.
"A lot of recipes were inspired by other people or were adapted from other people, but otherwise they're all our own," Winslow said. "Easy to use -- that was our goal. These are recipes we use all the time. We didn't want it to be an intimidating book. Onions shouldn't be intimidating. We wanted it to be approachable for people to just be able to jump in and make something right away."
The book is beautifully personal and homey, beginning with an introductory story from Ambrosino's family about "fried water," a depression-era recipe that his grandmother concocted that involves not much more than cooking an onion in olive oil until golden, pouring a bowlful of water over it, gently whisking in an egg and pouring that simple broth over a piece of bread. The bread is the carb, the egg is the protein, and the onion does all the rest.
"In the head notes [of the recipes], there's generally a personal story to how we came to that recipe, an experience we had traveling, even a few from New Mexico," Winslow said. "We really wanted to develop a book of food we liked to eat."
Because onions are ubiquitous, the recipes span the globe: Italian dishes, Korean short ribs, Thai cucumber salad and French onion soup follow one after the other, tied together by their reliance on any of the world's wide variety of alliums. All the major cuisines begin with onion mixtures, such as Latin sofrito or the Cajun trinity or the classic spice mixes that serve as the basis for Indian food. Winslow and Ambrosino's much-tested recipe for onion rings is also here as is lamb stew with leeks, scallion sesame pancakes and a killer New Mexico red chile enchilada recipe. But the real hidden gems are the simple recipes for condiments, such as pickled red onions, red onion jam, vadouvan, hrous and chermoula, allium-based spice blends and add-ons that pack maximum flavor and can be stored in the fridge to be slathered on meats or vegetables for a quick and zesty meal.
And while onions can be somewhat interchangeable in recipes, the book is an illustrated guide to the picturesque varieties of onions, offering a sense of the nuances and seasonality of this oft-overlooked vegetable.
"The sweeter onions happen in spring, and the fall and winter onions get a little sharper, a little more pungent," Winslow said. "But this is also the time of year we like to take those onions, but we cook them really slowly. Or you're braising them with a brisket or something. That pungent flavor is going to get mellowed out over that long, slow cooking."
Winslow and Ambrosino even have a favorite kind of onion.
"We have a soft spot for red Tropea onions, which are originally from an area along the coast of Italy," Winslow said.
"Onions Etcetera" by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino, Burgess Lea Press, 2017.