Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Recipes for REAL men - Basic Cooking Secrets, Volume 2, "What to do About Onions?"

Onions... the bane of my culinary existence.

As I have mentioned in these pages frequently, I unfortunately have a food sensitivity to the allium family, the most important member of which are the many varieties of onions.

It's not an allergy, it's a food sensitivity. It doesn't cause my throat to swell up or my skin to break out in hives etc... It just causes me... rather extreme... intestinal irritation and disturbance.

This is especially hard for me, since my favorite cuisines are Italian, Levantine/Middle-eastern Mediterranean (Lebanese, Armenian, Israeli, Turkish, Greek, Persian, north African, all related but different) south/central American (particularly the many varieties of Mexican), south asian (the many types of indian, pakistani etc...) and east asian (various chinese, japanese, vietnamese, and thai); all of which are VERY onion (and other allium), heavy.

I can take garlic (though too much unless it's stewed out or roasted is a problem), but shallots, leeks, or onions cause my Ulcerative Colitis to flare up (even when roasted, though I can usually take them in a soup or stew, so long as there aren't too many, and they're fully cooked out).

When you have an allium problem you just learn to ask about everything, and order carefully at restaurants.

Onions are the worlds biggest culinary cheat. They're a way to add flavor, quickly, and cheaply; and most chefs use them constantly. Even in dishes that have no "onions" whatsoever, anyone who was trained in french cuisine (and that includes almost every culinary school trained chef in the U.S.) uses finely minced shallots as a basis for building flavor in sauces, braising, stews, soups etc...

It's not a total loss. As I said, I can eat a little onion, if it's stewed out, or otherwise long cooked in a way that dilutes the compounds that cause the irritation (and shallots are more mild than onions). Also, the process by which onion powder is made removes a lot of the irritating factors for me, so a little bit of onion powder is OK (too much though, same problem).

But mostly, I just have to avoid ordering any dish with alliums in it, carefully ask about ingredients, and not cook with them on my own.

In fact, at least in part, I learned how to cook to compensate for my onion problem; and so I learned how to get that same flavor building effect that chefs cheat out with onions, through other means.

And I'm by no means alone. Onions are one of the most common food sensitivities or allergens... or just plain dislikes... out there. Accordingly, LOTS of folks are looking for ways around onions, without producing bland, lifeless, flavorless, boring food.

We are in the middle of prepping new content (and particularly photos) for the expanded and revised version of the cookbook, and we realized, I needed to include my tips and tricks for building flavor without using onions.

So, here they are, a few tricks, to help compensate for a lack of onions:
  • I use garlic, whenever appropriate
  • I use a little more salt than I otherwise would
  • I use a little more black pepper than I otherwise would
  • I use chicken or beef broth instead of water (always add flavor with every ingredient)
  • I use vinegar, hot sauce (particularly Franks Red Hot, which we buy by the gallon), A1, or worcestershire sauce (or a combination) in almost everything
  • I use a lot of lemon, lime, and orange juice
  • I use a lot of hard aged cheeses; particularly parmagiano regiano and romano
  • I use a lot of salted/brined cheeses like feta
  • I use pickled peppers, and even pickle brine sometimes (pureed pickled peppers build HUGE flavor without having chunks of peppers in the food)
  • I use a lot of chilis, of varying degrees of heat
  • I use tomato paste, which I thoroughly brown in the pan, then deglaze with flavorful liquid
  • I use hot mustard powder a lot (which replaces the pungency of onions nicely. Note, NOT prepared mustard, which is "too mustardy")
  • I use tamarind paste a lot, for the pungent sweet, sour, and nutty notes it gives, and the umami factor
  • I use harisa a fair bit, for the pungent, sweet, sour, and firey notes it gives
  • I use fennel a lot (both seed, and bulb. Bulb replaces the crunch of onions, while seed enhances "bite")
  • I use cumin a lot, for the smoky earthy flavor, and pungent aroma
  • I use smoked things, and "chilied" things like chipotles, chile oil, smoked roasted garlic, smoked salt etc... for that extra "bite, sweetness, and pungency of smoke
Several cuisines have a fundamental basis for almost every dish, that consists of aromatic herbs and roots: French food has mirepoix (onions, celery, and carrots), Cajun has "Trinity" (onions, bell peppers, celery), Latin and Caribbean has sofrito (onion, garlic, and tomato; or onion, garlic, and peppers; depending on the country).

As it happens, I love all three cuisines... which presents a problem for me.

So, I've developed my own workarounds.

For mirepoix, I add fennel and garlic. For trinity and sofrito, I add garlic and pickled hot peppers. For all of them, I put a little vinegar in the dish, and usually a bit of tomato paste (use the tubes not the cans, so you can use just a bit), for the sweet fruity acidity.

Onions are an easy way to add a strong, pungent, savory flavor base; but actually don't have a lot of distinctive flavor themselves in a finished cooked dish. The idea is to replace that pungency, that acidity etc... Get the nose open, the sinuses working, activate the sweet, sour, and savory taste sensations all at once.

You might also note, most of these substitutions are big umami builders. That's really what you're looking to do. Boost the umami, boost the pungency, boost the acidity, boost the mouthfeel.

Let me tell you. If you use garlic, a bit of worcestershire, a bit of franks red hot, tomato paste, hot mustard, and hard cheese in a meat sauce or red sauce, you will never notice the onions aren't there.

In fact, people who don't know any better, are always asking me things like "how did you get the onions to dissolve like that". When I tell them that there aren't any onions in the dish, they sometimes don't even believe me.

Now... if I could just find a way to make my wife her favorite... French onion soup... without onions...