Onions are one of life's great unsung heroes. They are nearly always there somewhere in the background in whatever we eat… finely chopped, minced, softened, browned and… more often than not playing second fiddle, at the very least, to more starry ingredients. Leave them out though and you would certainly notice. They add such depth of flavour to so many dishes that most would be all the poorer without them. Occasionally, when they are given the starring role, they really show what they are capable of. One only has to think of a beautifully made French onion soup to know what a well of savoury, sweet and silky deliciousness some well-handled onions can provide. The dish we have for you here gives the onion top billing with a cast of its fine friends doing what they do best. I mean, onions and sage? Onions and cheese? Onions and sage and cheese? What could go wrong?
The recipe comes from a quite brilliant chef, Bruno Loubet and his book of goodies called Mange Tout (Ebury Press 2013). I have given it the slightest of tweaks and added an optional fresh, zingy and crunchy salad to cut the richness of the dish and turn it from the starter Monsieur Loubet suggests it is into a pleasing lunch or light dinner. The onions themselves make a wonderful accompaniment to a roast joint of lamb or beef, or ham or gammon in any form, and something sizzling from the barbecue will make for a happy pairing too.
For the onions
- 4 large onions
- 80g butter (ie. cooked in a pan until just turning nut brown – just melted will do if you like)
- 150g Cheddar cheese, grated (you can use almost any well-flavoured hard cheese here)
- 3 tsps fresh sage leaves finely chopped or 2 tsps dried sage leaves
- 20g breadcrumbs
- 30g chopped nuts (hazelnuts or walnuts are good) - optional
- Pinch of freshly grated or ground nutmeg
- Salt and pepper
For the apple, radish and celery salad
- 2 eating apples
- 2 sticks of celery, cut into matchsticks or chopped (see above)
- 10 radishes, thinly sliced lengthways (the long breakfast ones are best but it's not vital)
- 1 tbsp cold-pressed rapeseed oil (olive oil or other good vegetable oil will do)
- Juice of ½ a lemon or 2 tsps cider vinegar (white wine vinegar will do well too)
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tbsp parsley and/or chives, finely chopped
For the baked onions:
- Preheat your oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/Gas mark 6.
- Trim the hairy roots from the onions but without cutting through the base which will loosen the petals of the onion, which you don't want. You'll need a pretty sharp knife for this. Using the same knife make an incision around the top of the onion, about a quarter of the way down the bulb (the root end being the bottom). Then using the prongs of a fork prick the onion all over.
- Place each onion in the middle of a square of tin foil and wrap from the bottom up so that the foil can be scrunched over the top of the onion and the bottom is watertight, seasoning with a pinch each of pepper and salt before closing the parcel.
- Put the wrapped onions in a roasting tin and pour round a pint of water and put in the hot oven. Bake for an hour or until a sharp knife goes into to the onion easily. Once it does remove the onions from the oven but keep the oven on and lower the temperatures to 170°C/fan 150°C/Gas 3½.
- Open the foil parcels of onions and set aside to cool.
- Place a small pan on a low heat and add the butter. Heat gently until the butter starts to brown and remove from the heat.
- When the onions are cool enough to handle remove them from the foil and using the sharp knife cut off the tops of the onions horizontally where you had made the incision in step 2. Set the removed tops aside, and carefully spoon out the softened flesh from inside the onions but leaving the three outermost layers intact. Place the removed flesh (but not the tops) on a chopping board and chop into small pieces.
- Put the chopped onion flesh into a mixing bowl and add the grated cheddar, browned butter, sage, breadcrumbs, nuts if using and nutmeg and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the hollowed-out onions and place the sliced off tops back on to cover the filling.
- Place the stuffed onions on a baking sheet and return to the hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes to heat through thoroughly. Once hot, turn on the grill, take the tops off the onions and put under the grill to brown the stuffing.
- Serve with the salad.
For the salad:
- Core the apple and cut into matchsticks or dice. You don't have to remove the skin as it adds a little colour to the salad, but you can if you prefer it. Cut the celery into matchstick/dice the same size as the apple.
- Put the apple, celery and thinly sliced radishes into a bowl and squeeze over the lemon juice or cider vinegar if using. Add the seasoning and oil of choice and toss well. Just before serving, add the chopped parsley or chives (or both) and toss well once more, and serve with the onions.
The sweetness of the onions and the creamy, rich savoury nature of the cheese will need good fruit and a touch of freshness. You could do a lot worse than start off in Alsace and the sylvaner-led Alsace, Boeckel for its crisp fruit and cut, or Pinot Blanc, Cave de Turckheim which does a similar job. D'Arenberg's fruit-filled Hermit Crab is a terrific melange of marsanne and viognier that balances vigour with generosity. Off-dry wines work beautifully with onions too, so look to the Orvieto Classico Amabile, Barberani or the spicy orchard fruit flavours of Szolo Tempo Tokaj Furmint for something a little different.
Among the reds, its again all about fruit without being a fruit bomb, and 'Dirt Track' Reserve Selection Syrah-Grenache, Coastal or The Society's Côtes-du-Rhône from our good friends, the Jaume family, serve as a template for the kind of wine that wins out here. Finally, the organic Spanish Aranleón Sólo Bobal, Utiel Requena has darker berry fruit but plenty of lift and a little spice for the dish.