"I wonder how many of you, when it comes to cooking your next meal, will start it by peeling an onion?" Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Well I think I'm going to be peeling several today. You see my problem, which was partly due to miscommunication between my husband and I - he didn't realise I had already purchased a large bag of onions when he bought some for me because they were a bargain. Also because I don't seem to have been cooking much of late - a mixture of too many leftovers to be used up, fasting and cooking without onions, which as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall points out is a rare occurrence.
My first thought was that the Friday quiche should be an onion one. And I shall indeed follow through on that, although I might add other things to the mix, but I also thought that I might, at last, give onion marmalade a go. Well - Onion jam, marmalade, chutney, caramelised onions, relish ... which is it? Are they same or different? So let me say that what I am after is something that I can make and keep, like any other preserve, in the pantry for a while, to be used as and when I wish. Something that looks a little bit like the above. And here's the perfect quote for the kind of day it is today - darkish, miserable, wet and windy.
"If you ever find yourself longing to cook a “good” vegetable, but there isn’t much in sight, get a deep pot and dig 8 to 10 plain, big, boring, dusty onions from your pantry, or the cold, dark onion bin at your nearest store. Then caramelise them." Tamar Adler/The Guardian
So as soon as I have finished this post I'm going to give it a try, so I'm crossing my fingers that I haven't left it too late and that they have all gone off!
Having now done my 'research' there are two main strands to explore. First - the differences between all those terms - if indeed there are any, and secondly how long does it take to caramelise those onions and how do you do it? I also wanted to find out how and when caramelised onions and all those other things became a thing, but could not find that out. Suffice to say that Jane Grigson does not have a recipe or any mention of such a thing. She does have a recipe for what she calls caramelised or glazed onions but these are whole onions, designed as a garnish for your main dish - an ingredient in Boeuf Bourgignon in fact. So I think it might be a relatively modern thing. And I think that's where the proliferation of names comes in.
Initially I suspect there were just caramelised onions - onions that were cooked long and slow, often with sugar and butter, and maybe balsamic vinegar - another ancient, but trendily modern ingredient - and then added to dishes like French onion soup, hamburgers, steak or cheese toasties. The ones shown here are from Ottolenghi who went his own way, calling them 'jammy onions'. At some point somebody hit on the idea of cooking them a bit longer and putting them in jars for sale at high 'artisan' or 'gourmet' prices. Then they started calling them jam and marmalade, although I have no idea why 'marmalade' unless it's because the strands of onion look like the peel of the oranges in marmalade. Because marmalade, these days is technically a citrus jam that includes those shreds of peel.
Mind you if you want to be clever you can quote Pam Corbin of River Cottage who at least tries to justify the name of her River Cottage onion marmalade:
"It takes its name from the French, where historically the name 'marmalade' was used to describe fruit that was cooked for a very long time until it was reduced to a thick purée."
I suppose jam was used because of the consistency, but as one writer pointed out, really the preserve sort is a chutney. Well that doesn't really fit either does it, because a chutney generally has a mix of fruit and vegetable, plus spices, and generally speaking the onion chutney, jam or marmalade does not have spices, or other fruit - normally there is just sugar plus some kind of vinegar or wine. I did find this recipe though on a site called Mother Would Know - Apple and caramelised onion chutney. And the recipe I am going to try - the River Cottage one, does have some redcurrant jelly in it. Incidentally I found a jar of that yesterday in Colonial Foods at Doncaster - the Beerenberg one - for a mere $6.00! It wasn't very large either. However, I shall store this away and use the cranberry jelly I bought the other day instead.
Relish is, I suspect even more complicated than chutney and can also be something fresh like a salsa. So I'm going to ignore that one. Actually I think somebody should just invent a name.
So how long will it take? Well as several websites will tell you - much longer than they tell you. Lies, lies, lies they say. Epitomised by this statement by Sarah Jamel on the Food52 website:
"What does caramelized mean? (I know—big sigh!) Are you looking for falling-apart, jammy onions? You'll need an hour. Or are you looking for onions that are just starting to turn from yellow to brown? You might only need 20 minutes." Sarah Jampel/Food52
I confess that I have never mastered the caramelised onions thing. I either don't get them caramelised enough or I burn them. I did find this useful diagram, however, on the Food52 site.
So don't expect to get onion jam, marmalade or chutney - call it what you will - in 15 minutes. And watch it or they'll burn and be utterly uneatable - burn onions are not nice. Why is it so tricky?
"there are two different chemical reactions at work. Caramelisation – where the sugars break down into hundreds of new molecules and the Maillard reaction binds the proteins and sugars into completely different flavour and aroma molecules. When both work in tandem, you get onions that are mild and packed with a unique flavour." Slurrp
And it seems you get that all of a sudden - which implies that not only does it take a long time, but you also need to be standing over it all the time:
"The whole mass will look soggy and unconvincing until right before the onions are done, as which point they melt completely into a golden jam and all of their sugars come out to toast." Tamar Adler
There actually seem to be two different methods. In the first you sort of melt the onions on a low heat for around half an hour with the butter and/or oil with the lid on, then you add the vinegars and wine (off the heat, so that they don't all vanish into the atmosphere), then with the lid off keep cooking (and stirring every now and then) until you've got the right consistency and colour. Other people put the whole lot in at the beginning and don't cook it with the lid on at all, and some don't use the lid but follow those first two steps.
The only good thing is that it doesn't have to set, like real jam. Which again means it's more like chutney isn't it?
"The consistency of chutney can be as thick as jam or slightly looser, like homemade cranberry sauce. It need not be incredibly spicy, but it shouldn’t be sweet." Mother Would Know
You will also find that most of the recipes say that you should use red onions. One cook even went as far as to say:
"Do not use yellow/white onions for this recipe, it won’t turn out the same at all." Curly's Cooking
Which I can't quite believe and Pam Corbin - the River Cottage lady certainly says that you can use any kind of onion. Mine are brown and they are small too. That's what I've got and that's what I'm going to use.
To conclude - three examples, and I have to say the most photogenic version of Caramelised onion chutney is from Tesco - an organisation my sister hates with a passion. Tales From the Kitchen Shed's Caramelised onion chutney looks pretty good too, but the Australian Women's Weekly offering of Onion marmalade looks paler. I suspect mine will too.
If I'm going to do this I had better get going. I'm almost into cooking dinner mode. But just let me include this recipe for Gurnard with melted onions and black olives from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall which I saw in passing and which I thought looked worth trying sometime soon. Not with gurnard though - something similar. I don't think we have gurnard here, but then I've never really come to grips with Australian fish. I will also leave you with a more general quote of his - about onions. Because it's true.
"There are very few cooking cultures that don't use onions as a baseline ingredient. Their pungent note, savoury yet also a little bit sweet, is a kind of touchstone on which a thousand dishes can be built. Cheap, easy to buy locally and available pretty much all year round, these are vegetables for which we should be very grateful." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall