A few years back I initiated a series of cooking classes at a homeless shelter in nearby Vermont. Most often I taught classes on my own with the assistance of one of the shelter’s staff. Residents of the shelter were there temporarily and often faced cooking food for their families in using unfamiliar ingredients. Because of its proximity to nearby farms, the shelter was fortunate to have a large variety of fresh produce donated to their food shelf. Many of the residents were more accustomed to canned and frozen foods, so peeling an onion or dicing a carrot was exotic and something they weren’t sure was worthwhile.
On class days, I made a point to arrive by eight AM, an hour earlier than the classes typically began, and before some folks were even awake. I’d go to the food pantry to assemble what was on hand, then begin the process of luring people out of their rooms and, for the shelter staff, out of their offices with the aromas of food gently transforming on the stovetop. Most savory dishes began with a bit of heated olive oil to which I added sliced onions. A gentle sauté would transform a humble vegetable into a sweet and tender vehicle for the flavors building in a dish. When making soup, I’d add some carrots and celery to the mix, then a bit of stock, and whatever vegetables were available that morning. Sometimes I’d just add a bit of dried spice to the cooking onions, then toss in some white or brown rice and a canned tomatoes with their juices to form a pilaf. When there were a lot of eggs available, I’d chop some mushrooms, add them to the onions, and have them on hand for made-to-order omelets. The simple onion transformed itself into a vehicle for flavor and, for some, a reason to get out of bed. In doing so, it also encouraged a few people at a difficult point in their lives toward knowing change is possible, and that fresh food can be a transformative experience.
More often than not, the onion is a supporting player in an otherwise complex dish. These Classic Oven Roasted Onions are a chance for them to shine on their own. Whole onions are roasted to both to soften and bring out their natural sweetness, then gently braised with wine and bits of cooked meat or other vegetables to create a rich sauce to an otherwise light and delicate dish. Make them the centerpiece of a light dinner accompanied by fresh bread and cheeses. Or serve them alongside grilled meats or seafood for a heartier meal.
It’s fall here in New England―maple trees are going through their own transformation. I would be remiss if I didn’t include some photos of our lovely foliage. Enjoy.
I look forward to seeing you in my kitchen, gathering flavors, soon.
Classic Oven Roasted Onions
Yield: 4 Servings
- 4 medium to large onions (yellow, red or white)
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- ½ cup cooked beef, diced to small dice (optional)
- Handful fresh herbs (oregano or thyme), for serving
- 4 cooked carrots, for serving, (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Pour 2 tablespoon olive oil into a small Dutch oven or other heavy bottom pan with a lid. Coat the entire surface of the pan with oil.
- Leaving the bottoms of the onion intact, trim away the roots and ¼ inch of the top of each of the onions. Peel the off outer skin. Place the trimmed onions, root side down, in the prepared pan. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Place the prepared onions in the oven, uncovered, and roast for one hour or until the center of each onion is easily pierced with a knife.
- Remove from the oven. Pour the wine into the pan around the onions. Sprinkle the onions with Parmigiano-Reggiano and the cooked beef, if using. Cover the pan and return the onions to the oven for 15 minutes.
- When ready to serve, place one onion on each of 4 small dinner plates. Divide the beef and sauce accumulated in the baking pan between each plate. Garnish with fresh herbs and cooked carrots, if using.