Until I knew better I had always believed I was making caramelised onions. This was just one of the components of the vegetarian breakfast I used to serve for several years at a Sydney cafe I co-ran, another life ago. Potato rosti, splayed-out avocado half, slow-roasted roma tomatoes and a dollop of these onions I had previously simmered endlessly in a heady sticky mass with chilli and ginger and wine and sugar and balsamic vinegar. I loved making my ‘caramelised’ onions because of the rapture induced by their fragrance, the way the air remained sweetly, fruitily, spicily, richly perfumed for a long time afterwards. For lunches I would pile the onions on to slices of roast pumpkin, fresh ricotta and slow-roasted tomatoes and sandwich the lot inside turkish bread, package it in alfoil and heat it in the oven – it became an easy addiction.
Onion jam, it turns out, is what I was making. Caramelisation relies on the natural sugars within food so in fact caramelised onions are simply onions, usually sliced, which are heated in some form of fat, allowed to ’sweat’ over a low heat in order to lose their moisture, then continued to be cooked until they turn brown. Caramelising is the browning of sugars which arises through heating beyond a certain temperature, causing them to break down into a large number of compounds; it is this which results in complexity of flavour, and the slightly nutty, caramel flavour which is common to all caramelised foods.
Any type of onion may be used – brown, white or the so-called Spanish reds. I always prefer the latter which anyway possess a fruitier character. The important thing is to allow the thinly sliced onion to cook slowly. You can add a bay leaf or a sprig of rosemary if you wish.
I would make up big batches of my ’caramelised’ onions – they seemed to last for weeks and weeks. And besides, apart from the vegetarian breakfasts and the fancy sandwiches, they served other purposes as well, finding their way into frittatas, vegetable tarts, quiches, omelettes, steak sandwiches. They are wonderful alongside terrines, sublime with cheeses. In his truly useful cookbook The Basics, chef and one-time local Anthony Telford says that he likes to serve his particular version of onion jam – which utilises port – with very ripe brie or camembert, or with Persian fetta and crusty bread. He suggests whipping room-temperature cream cheese until soft, spooning it into a bowl then adding onion jam to serve with crackers for what sounds like a very easy entertaining idea. ‘Crusty bread served with blue cheese and onion jam is a great way to finish off a dinner party,’ he says, clearly my kind of man.
Below, however, is my version of ’caramelised’ onions:
Thinly slice 4 medium red onions. Heat 50ml olive oil in a large heavy-based frypan and throw in the onions together with 2 fresh chillis finely chopped and seeded, 2 teaspoons cumin powder and 4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger. Over a moderate heat cook the onions, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until they collapse and become translucent. Pour in 150ml white wine and 1 cup of balsamic vinegar and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer gently until considerably reduced. Scatter in 6 tablespoons each brown and white sugar, stir to dissolve and continue cooking another 5–10 minutes.
Onions have rarely been more exciting!