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Cooking School: Elegant Onion Recipes

Chef Ken Oringer gives the humble root vegetable a star turn

Written and produced by Stephen Exel
  • Think about the onion: It spends its growing season underground, then gets relegated to bins and cellars, and, eventually, brings us to tears. Yet, it’s a basic of the kitchen arsenal, a staple in too many cuisines to list. Always available, reliable—and too often taken for granted.

    Not for Boston chef and intrepid traveler Ken Oringer. Oringer’s restaurants—four in Boston, one in Maine, and a sixth in New York City—specialize in inventive interpretations of cuisines the chef has explored in his travels. “I spend a fair amount of time searching for the best flavors and the social aspects of eating in another country, then translating that energy to a fine-dining setting,” he says.

    Culled from this diverse repertoire come four recipes that take the onion center stage, where common varietals from boilers to Vidalias are used to coax flavors that are pungent or sweet, strong or delicate. 

    “Taking something ordinary and putting it on a pedestal challenges me,” says the peripatetic chef. “I’m as curious as they come. With certain ingredients, anything can be done; let’s figure it out.”

    “Figuring it out” has been challenging cooks for at least 5,000 years—ever since onions were first cultivated for culinary, medicinal, and spiritual use. “It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions,” Julia Child once quipped.

    Photography: Peter Krumhardt 

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  • Peter Krumhardt

    Hardy Onions

    Because of its hardiness when being transported and its ease of cultivation, the onion became a mainstay in global cuisines. (It has also been used for currency and worshipped as a symbol of eternity.) An onion is one of the few vegetables that is both an ingredient for cooking and a dish on its own. It is just as palatable in its immature stage as when it is mature. How many foods can make that claim?

    “I could never imagine cooking without an onion,” says Oringer, who has earned a James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Northeast. “It’s the workhorse of the kitchen.” 

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    Elegant Onion

    His recipes reflect his respect for this hearty staple. For a small main course or side dish, Oringer offers a whole stuffed onion at his farm-to-table restaurant, Earth, in Kennebunkport, Maine. Basic white onions become a mellow vessel for a rich stuffing mixture of crème fraîche, garlic, potato, and Parmesan cheese.

    Oringer’s dish of smoked onions with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes (served at his Barcelona-inspired Toro, located in Boston’s South End and in New York City), recalls the age-old Spanish tradition of cooking over hardwoods and vine clippings. The smoked vegetables, spiced with a mixture of fennel, coriander, and cumin, are a delicious accompaniment to just about anything from the grill.

    There’s tableside razzle-dazzle in Oringer’s Japanese offering—roasted Vidalia onions with steak teriyaki. At his elegant Clio in Boston’s Eliot Hotel, sample a roasted onion salad with onions prepared three ways. “I can’t imagine that anything tastes better than a caramelized onion,” the chef claims. “It’s sheer umami.”

    That’s a sentiment over which we could shed a tear.

    Show: Roasted Onion Salad with smoked salmon and beets is dressed with a taramasalata vinaigrette. Recipe here.

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    Smoked Onions with Eggplant, Peppers, and Tomatoes 

    From Toro, in New York and Boston

    “This recipe is the essence  of the Mediterranean to me,” Oringer says. “These simple ingredients taste so much better when they cook for a longer time.” Don’t cut the onion too fine, he suggests. “It will pick up more flavor when it’s cut bigger.” Drink: A crisp white, such as an Albariño from Spain or an Austrian Grüner Veltliner.

    • 4 applewood chunks
    • 3 Vidalia onions or any red or sweet onions, peeled and quartered
    • 1/4 cup Spanish olive oil, divided
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 3 large tomatoes, quartered
    • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
    • 2 medium red sweet peppers, quartered, stems and seeds removed
    • 1 large eggplant, cut in 1-inch-thick slices
    • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
    • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
    • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seed
    • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
    • 1 tablespoon honey
    • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
    • A few drops bottled hot pepper sauce
    • 1 tablespoon chopped green onion
    • 1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley
    • Broiled fish, grilled steak, or chicken (optional)

    Recipe continues on next page

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    Smoked Onions with Eggplant, Peppers, and Tomatoes 

    At least 1 hour before smoke-cooking, soak wood chunks in enough water to cover. Drain before using. Preheat oven to 300°F. In bowl toss onions with half of olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. In second bowl, toss tomatoes with remaining olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set tomatoes aside. Place onions on 15x10x1-inch baking pan; bake 35 minutes. Add tomatoes and garlic to pan. Bake 15 minutes more or until onions are tender and tomatoes softened. When cool enough to handle, remove skin from tomatoes. Set garlic aside.

    For gas or charcoal grill, place sweet peppers and eggplant slices on rack of covered grill directly over medium heat. Grill 8 to 12 minutes, turning occasionally, until skins of peppers are charred and eggplant slices are tender and lightly browned. Wrap peppers in foil; let stand 15 minutes. Remove skin from peppers; discard skin.

    In smoker arrange preheated coals, drained wood chunks, and water pan according to manufacturer's directions. Pour water into pan. Place onions and sweet peppers on grill racks over water pan. Place tomatoes in foil pan. Place foil pan on grill rack. Cover; smoke 1 hour. Add additional coals and water as needed to maintain temperature and moisture.

    In food processor or blender, place two onion wedges, two tomato wedges, one sweet pepper quarter, and 1 slice eggplant (cut up first and skin removed, if needed). Cover; blend or process until smooth; set aside.

    In medium dry skillet toast fennel seed, coriander seed, and cumin seed over medium heat until fragrant. Remove from skillet; place in spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Grind to powder. Chop reserved garlic; set aside.

    In large bowl combine remaining smoked onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and grilled eggplant slices. Add sherry, honey, soy sauce, bottled hot pepper sauce, toasted spice mixture, and garlic. Toss to coat. Let sit 20 minutes. In serving bowl, arrange smoked vegetables and vegetable puree. Sprinkle with green onions and parsley. If desired, serve atop fish, steak, or chicken. 

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    Roasted Vidalia Onions with Steak Teriyaki 

    From Uni, Boston 

    Prepared for guests tableside in a preheated cast-iron skillet or baker, this dish is a showstopper. Halved onions caramelize in the oven, then are cut and combined with the beef and teriyaki. It’s a classic combo of beef sweetness, meatiness, and saltiness. “I love how the onion naturally forms ‘petals,’ ” Oringer says. Drink pairing: “Sake, of course,” Oringer advises. “Chilled, though—it’s a little more refreshing.”

    Roasted onions:

    • 2 large sweet onions
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 2 teaspoons olive oil

    Onion Sauce:

    • 6 large sweet onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
    • 4 tablespoons butter
    • Dash ground mace
    • Splash Madeira wine

    Teriyaki Sauce:

    • 1/4 cup sweet rice wine (mirin)
    • 1/4 cup sake
    • 1/4 cup soy sauce
    • 1/4 cup sugar
    • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mushrooms
    • 1 green onion, cut into 1-inch lengths
    • 1 (1/2-inch) slice fresh ginger
    • 1 small clove garlic

    Seasoned Salt:

    • 1 cup Kosher salt
    • 1 star anise
    • 1 cinnamon stick
    • 1 (8-ounce) boneless beef strip steak
    • Black sesame seeds
    • Lime wedges

    To make Roasted Onions: Preheat oven to 450°F. Line baking sheet with foil; set aside. Cut onions in half with skin on. Season cut side with salt and pepper and rub with olive oil. Place onions on prepared baking sheet with cut side down. Bake until tender, about 30 minutes. 

    Recipe continues on next page.

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    Roasted Vidalia Onions with Steak Teriyaki 

    Cool, peel, quarter, and separate onions into petals; reserve.

    To make Onion Sauce: Place remaining 6 chopped onions in blender or food processor. Cover; blend or process until smooth. Strain through sieve or cheesecloth, pressing solids with back of spoon or spatula; discard solids. In medium saucepan, cook onion juice slowly until it reaches sauce consistency, approximately 90 minutes. Add butter, ground mace and splash of Madeira wine. Season with salt and pepper; reserve.

    To make Teriyaki Sauce: In small saucepan combine mirin and sake. Bring to boil. Boil 2 minutes to burn off alcohol. Add soy sauce, sugar, mushrooms, green onion, ginger, and garlic. Simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes until sauce reaches molasses consistency and is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Strain through fine mesh sieve. Reserve.

    To make Seasoned Salt: In large skillet, combine salt, star anise, and cinnamon. Heat over low heat until aromatic. Let cool to room temperature. Grind mixture in spice grinder.

    Place strip steak in freezer; freeze 20 minutes or until slightly firm. Meanwhile, heat an enamel-coated cast iron gratin dish or large cast iron skillet in oven at 450°F until VERY hot. When ready to assemble, cut beef into very thin slices (as thin as sashimi); set aside. Heat onion sauce gently; place in 6 individual side ramekins. Carefully remove gratin dish from oven; place on trivet. Toss onion petals and beef slices in gratin dish, allowing heat of pan to cook beef to rare or medium rare. (If necessary, transfer dish to stovetop to cook to desired doneness.) Drizzle mixture gently with warm teriyaki sauce; sprinkle with seasoned salt and sesame seeds. Serve with lime wedge for squeezing and onion sauce for dipping.

    Tip: Onion sauce can be made one day ahead.

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    Roasted Onion Salad with Taramasalata Vinaigrette

    From Clio, Boston 

    Diverse flavors combine to create something unexpected with roasted cipollini onions, Vidalia onion puree, and pickled red pearl onions served alongside roasted beets, smoked salmon, and greens.  Oringer’s pickled pearl onions could also be served with charcuterie, prosciutto, or smoked salmon. Drink pairing: A spicy Alsatian pinot gris.  

    Taramasalata is a vegetable dip that originated in Greece and is made with olive oil, bread crumbs, seasonings, and salmon roe. Here, Oringer uses it as a base for the salad dressing. Taramasalata can be found at specialty grocery stores.

    Roasted Onions:

    • 40 cipollini onions (about 1-1/4 pounds), peeled*
    • 3 tablespoons canola oil
    • 6 shallots, chopped
    • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
    • 1 tablespoon butter

    Caramelized Onion Puree:

    • 2 Vidalia onions, sliced
    • 4 tablespoons butter
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

    Sautéed Beets:

    • 2 candy cane or regular beets, peeled and cut into thin wedges
    • 1 sprig fresh thyme
    • 1 clove garlic, minced
    • 2 tablespoons butter

    Pickled Pearl Onions:

    • 12 red pearl onions (about 7 ounces), peeled*
    • 3 tablespoons Chardonnay vinegar
    • 3 tablespoons water
    • 3 tablespoons sugar
    • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

    Taramasalata Vinaigrette:

    • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
    • 1/4 cup fat-free milk
    • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
    • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill
    • 2 tablespoons purchased Taramasalata or red caviar
    • 1 pound purchased smoked salmon, broken into chunks
    • Arugula, watercress, and/or fresh dill sprigs

    To make Roasted Onions: Halve peeled cipollini onions horizontally. In large skillet, cook onions in hot oil about 15 minutes or until browned and very tender. Add shallots, thyme sprigs, and butter. Cook and stir about 5 minutes more or until shallots are tender; remove onion mixture from skillet. Discard thyme sprigs. Cover; set aside. Makes about 3 cups.

    To make Caramelized Onion Puree: In large skillet, cook sliced Vidalia onions in 2 tablespoons of hot butter over medium heat about 30 minutes or until deeply caramelized and tender, stirring often. Transfer onion mixture to food processor. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Cover; process until smooth. Transfer mixture to fine mesh sieve; use back of spoon or a rubber spatula to press mixture through sieve. Discard any solids. Season puree with salt and pepper to taste. Cover; set aside. Makes about 3/4 cup.

    To make Sautéed Beets: In large skillet, cook beets, thyme sprig, and garlic in hot butter about 15 minutes or until beets are just tender, stirring often. Remove from skillet. Cover; set aside. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.

    To make Pickled Pearl Onions: Halve peeled pearl onions; place in nonreactive container. In small saucepan bring chardonnay vinegar, water, sugar, and salt just to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour over onions; allow to come to room temperature. Store in airtight container in refrigerator until ready to serve. If desired, allow to come to room temperature before serving. Makes about 1-1/3 cups.

    Recipe continues on next page

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    Roasted Onion Salad with Taramasalata Vinaigrette

    To make Taramasalata Vinaigrette: In small bowl combine yogurt, milk, chives, dill, and Taramasalata. Stir gently to combine. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.

    To serve, place dollop of onion puree in middle of each salad plate. Arrange roasted onions, pickled onions, beets, and salmon abstractly around puree and drizzle with desired amount of vinaigrette. Garnish with favorite greens. Pass any remaining vinaigrette.

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    Roasted Onion Salad with Taramasalata Vinaigrette

    *To peel onions: Place onions in boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse in cold water. Cut off ends of each onion and remove skin by pushing onion through cut end.

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    Stuffed Onions with Crème Fraîche and Garlic

    From Earth, Kennebunkport, Maine

    “I imagine this as something a French grandmother would make,” Oringer says. “The whole focus is on keeping the integrity of the onion.” Drink pairing: Oringer recommends a hearty lager.

    Espelette powder is the ground powder from a medium-heat chile native to the Basque region of France, similar in taste and use to paprika. You can find it at specialty grocery stores or here.

    • 6 large onions (about 3-3/4 pounds)
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1/4 cup soft bread crumbs
    • 1 large potato, baked, peeled, and coarsely chopped
    • 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
    • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic (6 cloves)
    • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground Espelette pepper
    • 1/2 cup purchased crème fraîche
    • 2 tablespoons butter, sliced
    • 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

    Peel onions leaving root ends attached. In large Dutch oven, cover onions with water; bring to boil. Simmer, covered, 20 to 25 minutes until just tender. Drain; set aside to cool. 

    Recipe continues on next page

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    Stuffed Onions with Crème Fraîche and Garlic

    When cool, cut off 1/2-inch slice from top to create large opening. Using paring knife and teaspoon, carefully scoop out insides, leaving two to three outer layers so onions keep their shape. Coarsely chop onion insides, reserve.

    In extra-large skillet heat 2 tablespoons butter and oil over medium heat. Add reserved chopped onion; cook 5 to 10 minutes until lightly caramelized, stirring occasionally. Add bread crumbs. Cook and stir until lightly toasted. Add potato and gently mash with fork. Add chives, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, and Espelette pepper. Cook and stir 5 minutes more. Remove from heat. Stir in crème fraîche and butter until just combined. Cool slightly.

    Preheat oven to 400°F. Place scooped-out onions in 2 quart gratin dish. Spoon filling into onions, mounding slightly. Sprinkle tops with Parmesan. Bake, uncovered, 20 to 25 minutes until brown and heated through. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

    Tip: For baked potato preheat oven to 425°F. Scrub potato thoroughly with  brush; pat dry. Prick potato with fork. Bake 40 to 60 minutes or until tender. 

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    Guide to Onion Varietals

    While there are more than 500 varieties of onions, certain onions retain popularity and are better suited to specific uses. Here’s a guide to the staples you’ll find in the produce aisle (clockwise, starting at 12:00).

    • Green onions or scallions: Mild taste; both the white bulb and green stalk can be used in cooking.
    • Gold boilers: Mild pungency. Use in stews or for pickling.
    • White: The most common onion; these are mature white boiler onions. Crisp, with pronounced sharpness.
    • Red Italian: A sweet onion. Often used raw for a hint of pungent flavor and color.
    • Vidalia: Yellow-skinned sweet onion varietal from Vidalia, Georgia. Sweet and juicy. Best season is May through June.
    • Spanish: Yellow-skinned, many-layered, all-purpose onion. Strongly flavored.
    • Cipollini: Small, flat; good for stewing, pickling, and roasting with other vegetables. Sharp and sweet flavor.
    • Red boilers: Slightly sweeter then the gold variety.
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  • Ken Oringer’s Restaurants 

    Ken Oringer’s six restaurants specialize in inventive interpretations of different cuisines. Find a complete guide to hours and addresses here.

    Making the most of just-harvested ingredients, Oringer celebrates local farm-to-table cuisine at Earth (pictured), located at the famed Hidden Point resort in Kennebunkport, Maine.

    Boston’s timeless Eliot Hotel is home to two of Oringer’s restaurants. Enjoy French-inspired Clio (which contributed to Oringer’s win of the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Northeast award in 2001) or a sashimi menu at Uni, which features seafood from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. 

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    In Boston’s South End, handmade pastas and charcuterie are featured at the Italian enoteca, Coppa. Tastes of Barcelona beckon with a selection of tapas at Toro (pictured), with locations in Boston and New York.

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