|Red over-wintered onion|
This was the first over-wintered onion I lifted this year. Its beauty transfixed me. I took it home and placed it on the old wooden crate I keep on my little balcony and, of course, excitedly photographed it. Out the shot went into the ether because, surely, everyone who saw it would admire it as much as I did. I doubt anyone appreciated it quite so much, but this is what growing does to you. You become ridiculously overwhelmed with your successes and their magnificence. I harvested the onion early because of its immense size - well it was the biggest onion I'd ever grown - and monster veg is not my thing. The need to grow for girth rather than taste - the biggest parsnip, the heaviest pumpkin, the plumpest gooseberry - is beyond my comprehension. I think I was even a little scared by how big it had grown. It was a meal in itself.
There the onion sat for 4 weeks, 'drying', even though I knew perfectly well it was a red overwintered onion; moist and perishable, they are most definitely not for keeping. Bit by bit, the rest of the late-autumn planted sets have been brought into the kitchen and cooked enthusiastically, but this one remained on the box ageing with grace. It could not go on. So, today I took another 'still life with onion' (above) and chose a dish I hoped would do it justice.
In most cuisines the onion is reached for with astonishing regularity. It's the vegetable that was top of my list to grow when I first took on my allotment. Their ubiquity means they are cheap to buy but the satisfaction in harvesting a bed of onions, to be dried and squirrelled away for future use, is high. All forms of allium are invaluable to my growing year: chives for delicacy; shallots for sweet pungency; leeks for a mild sweetness; garlic for punch; and onions for their fantastic versatility.
The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda wrote a number of 'odes to common things', including:
Ode to the Onion
Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal ....." Read more
Thank you Comeconella for the reminder.
It's easy to take the onion for granted but there are some dishes where it commands a starring role. Onion Soup, Roast Stuffed Onions, Onions a la Grecque and Onion Marmalade, to name a few. For me, Simon Hopkinson's Onion Tart with Lancashire Cheese is a fine example; the Provençal onion tart, Pissaladière, another notable one. But should a Pissaladière include tomato or not? Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David say yes; Alice Waters and Elizabeth Luard say No. Waters specifies yellow onions; Grigson leaves the choice of strength to the cook. Then there's the question of the base - bread dough or pastry? And, if pastry, what kind? No one seems to agree, least of all the French.
Personally, I don't want to stray into Italian Pizza territory, much as I like Pizza, so tomatoes are out along with the bread dough base. Pissaladière gets its name from pissalat niçoise, a paste made of salt-cured anchovies pounded with olive oil, thyme and bay. For me, it needs to be a rough-puff pastry base, spread with sweet onion perfumed with bay and thyme to contrast with salty anchovies and olives. I prepare my onions the Alice Waters way, stewed slowly, the cooking juices drained off and used to pour over the tart just before serving.
300g rough-puff pastry
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 medium sized onions, thinly sliced
2 plump cloves garlic, thinly sliced
a few sprigs thyme
100g salted anchovies
A handful of black olives, preferably Niçoise, de-stoned
Salt and pepper
Roll the pastry to a rectangle, roughly 30cm x 20cm. Place on a baking tray and create a narrow border to the pastry by cutting half-way into it all the way around. about 1cm from the edge (this allows the border to rise a little more than the centre) Prick the base a few times with a fork. Chill in the fridge.
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and herbs, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Stir then cover and stew for about 1 hour until they are completely soft (they should not brown). Strain and reserve the liquid.
Rinse and fillet the anchovies. Halve the olives or leave whole if very small.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (Fan 16oC)/Gas 4.
Spread the onion mixture over the base of the pastry within the cut edge. Top with the strips of anchovy and the olives. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven. Just before serving, use the reserved liquid from cooking the onions to pour over the filling.
Serve just warm or at room temperature.
Here's a tip from Jane Grigson for the frugal cook: "When your onions sprout towards the end of the winter, use the green shoots as if they were chives."