Often in these doldrums I’d just as soon pull on a pair of wool socks and another sweater and make a bowl of polenta (or rice or ferro) laced with cream and maple sugar and a hint of cinnamon and sprawl on the couch to catch up on the last season of Mad Men. That childish meal would take precedence even over a slightly more sophisticated bowl of the same stuff condimented with olive oil and garlic and parmesan – if you’re going to be twelve, be twelve! In that light, forget the maple syrup – make it brown sugar, and be sure to put a lump of good butter in the bottom of the bowl before you pour in the hot cereal.
But those days are gone forever. At seventy, one needs to dredge up at least a modicum of dignity and put to work the things one knows are good to do for oneself and one’s ones. But sometimes good intentions fail when 8° Fahrenheit is a heat wave and you just want something comforting but not too pointedly childish.
And, sometimes the more you know the ‘less’ you need to do to get away with very little. Recently I heard reference to James Beard’s Braised Onion Sauce from his book, Beard on Pasta, one that I don’t own, but was able to look up online. The recipe is simplicity itself and, though it is meant to go on pasta, I thought I would use it as a pizza topping.
Most of us can recognize the desirability of braising onions long and slow until they turn golden and soft and very very sweet. Nowadays food writers can get a little pretentious about it and call for a certain kind of sweet onion. And yes, it is possible that the reason James Beard called for plain ole yellow onions is not because of choice but because of the lack of it: When he wrote, there were two kinds of onions readily available – yellow and white – and yellow were preferable for this recipe.
I’m sure he knew of the sweet cipollini or Maui or Vidalia but I like to think that even if they were available he would still have preferred to cook down strong sharp flavorful onions to discover their hidden sweetness rather than to accentuate the already sweet and often insipid ones. I would, anyway. Of course he does call for the addition of a tablespoon of sugar to the onions and that can be omitted or at least halved, as the finished sauce was quite sweet and in my opinion the sugar detracted from the natural sweet flavor of them.
He calls for 1 ½ pounds of onions and ½ pound of butter! That – 2 sticks, or 16 tablespoons – is too much butter, if such a thing can be said of butter. I used ten tablespoons, which is a stick plus 2 tablespoons and next time I would cut it down to one stick. (Actually, thinking this over, the amount of butter may not be too much for pasta because it makes up the sauce. It IS too much for a pizza topping.)
So the idea is that you slice up about 3 large onions, put them in the pan with the butter and a bit of salt, turn the heat to low and let them just sweat in the butter and their own juices for about an hour until they are golden and even puddeny. When they have become that thick, unctuous, caramelly sauce, you add some Madeira – or sherry, as I did, lacking Madeira – and then you throw them over some substantial pasta and shave a bit of parmesan over them and voila::: Comfort Food!!!
This idea caught me early in the day so I started braising the onions, thinking that – for lack of an appropriate pasta – I would use it on a pizza. So that’s what I did, and here’s that little recipe:
James Beard’s Braised Onion Sauce
(for pasta or pizza, annotated, of course, by me)
- 10 to 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (I used 10 tablespoons and the pizza was ringed in melted butter. I’d use 8 the next time)
- 1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
- 1 tablespoon sugar (for me, this is optional – I would leave it out next time)
- Salt (about a teaspoon for the cooking, and a sprinkling of coarsely ground at the end)
- 1/4 cup Madeira (lacking this, I used sherry)
- 3/4 pound hot cooked pasta (I used a pizza crust)
- Grated Parmesan, for serving
- In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent.
- Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions slowly for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Patience is key! When they're done, they should be golden, caramelized, and borderline jammy.
- Stir in the Madeira, cook for a few more minutes
- Add the cooked pasta to the pan. Shower on a generous dusting of Parmesan, and using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce OR
- simply spread the onion sauce over the pizza crust, shave parmesan over the top, pop it into a 450° oven for about 15 minutes or until golden and bubbly and that will be that.
We loved this for dinner and I cut the leftovers into little squares and served them as a snack when friends came over the next day.
It was very popular, arguably a bit healthier than the sugary hot porridge, but still Such a Comfort!