The Onion Sandwich — Caramelized Onions
People who comment or send me mail tell me I can improve my blog by talking more about my life. From their advice I have been adding bits and bytes. A part of my life story I never speak about is poverty: I grew up poor. After my parents divorced my mother and I were so poor we couldn’t afford a vacuum. My mother borrowed one every couple of months from her half-brother’s wife. (To clean the carpet we used the back side of tape.)
We were poorer than most because my mother was unable to work — why is another story — and so we depended on welfare, food stamps, and kindness.
Sometime in the 80’s the government started cutting the welfare and food stamp programs. I was used to not having much. Our furniture came from hand me downs, our TV a tiny, portable black and white. I only ever had a couple of pairs of pants and a few shirts. This was the baseline for my day to day — but I didn’t know how good I had been living until those cuts came into effect. One example should make my meaning clear.
I came home from school one day to my mother eating an onion sandwich: Two slices of day old bread, a slice of raw onion, French’s mustard. We had nothing else. I recall she smiled, said it was delicious and wished she had know — which sounded plausible through her souther drawl, but the sadness in her eyes gave up the lie.
I broke out of what I hear called a The Cycle of Poverty. I am aware that a lot of my choices are a reaction to having been poor. I have 37 pairs of shoes because I grew up having just one, poorly fit and used to the last — but I don’t waste money and never borrow.
Although I rarely talk about it, I own up to where I came from. I know from experience that you can chose how to remember what’s passed. To a degree you can reshape a memory — or honor it to let it go. So I took the pungent onion and made it sweet; I crafted my own mustard to make it mine; I bought the very best bread and made an Onion Sandwich.
(note: this is also used in Savory Pie)
tier one (you must use)
- At least 2 pounds of brown onions sliced thin (I fill my 12 liter/quart stock pot which reduce to about 2 cups)
- Up to 2 tablespoons of butter (you really don’t much, the water in the onions will prevent them from sticking for most of the cooking)
tier three (optional)
- Up to 1 tablespoon sugar (near the very end to help caramelize the onions or further sweeten them, taste before adding sugar)
- Up to 1/4 cup strong beef stock near the very end of cooking (to loosen the brown bits at the end of cooking)
- Up to 1/4 cup water (to loosen the brown bits at the end of cooking)
Method: Put your butter or oil in a large pot. Peel your onions, remove the root end and cut in half lengthwise and slice thin. Add them to the pot with the butter. When you’ve finished all your onions put the pot on the stove and turn it on medium to melt the butter. Don’t stir the pot until it’s heated up, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir the pot and make a decision:
If you’re going to be in the kitchen and want the dish to finish quickly turn the heat up to high and stir every five minutes or so. They’ll finish in about an hour, depending on the volume. If you want to relax, turn the heat to low and come back and stir the pot ever 20 to 30 minutes. Depending on the volume and heat, this method will take a minimum of three hours.
Your onions will go through three distinct phases:
- Individual slices slowly becoming a mush with a lot of liquid, almost like a soup. This phase is the longest and requires the least amount of attention.
- They will start sticking to the pot. Here you have stir more often, but there’s still a lot of liquid. At this point you’ll notice the start of a color change from translucent to light brown.
- Finally they will brown during which you need to constantly move the onions in the the pot, scraping the brown bits off as much as you can. Those brown bits are flavor.
The temptation is to remove the onions when they start to stick. Don’t. Reduce the heat if you wan to but bring them to a dark brown. When they are near dark brown, this is where you would add sugar. When you can no longer scrap the bits off the bottom and sides of the pan then they are done. Remove them from the pan. You can also remove all but a tablespoon or two and add either 1/4 cup of water or strong beef stock to loosen the remaining brown bits of flavor at the bottom of the pan. I keep these separate from the caramelized onions to flavor other dishes.
You can see an example of caramelizing vegetables here.