“Onions. An excellent thing, the onion, and highly suitable for old people and those with cold temperaments, owing to its nature, which is hot in the highest degree, sometimes moist, and sometimes dry. The most desirable of the many varieties are the white onions, being rich in watery juices. They generate milk in nursing mothers and fertile semen in men. They improve the eyesight, are softening, and stimulate the bladder. Headaches, which are sometimes caused by onions, can be cured with vinegar and milk. Those suffering from coughs, asthma, and constrictions in the chest, should eat boiled onions, or onions baked under the embers, served with sugar and a little fresh butter”
This passage is by the XI Century Baghdad doctor Ibn Butlann whose book Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥa (تقويم الصحة Maintenance of Health) was translated in Europe as Tacuinum Sanitatis and became one of the most important books on hygiene, dietetics and exercise, from the Middle Ages well into the Renaissance (the picture and text in the gallery are from the English edition of the book, The Four Season of the House of Cerruti, 1984, available on http://www.archive.org).
Onions are indeed excellent and without them much Italian cooking would be lustreless.
Think first of all of battuto, the mix of chopped onions, carrots and celery that is one of the cornerstones of countless recipes. One small brown onion, used both for a background flavour and for the golden hue it gives, is always added when making brodo, the light meat broth that is made with solid pieces of meat, never with bones, and that is one of the most restorative foods I can think of and the best cooking liquid for risotto.
Onions do sometimes need taming of course. When I eat them raw in a green salad, I follow Marcella Hazan’s tip and squeeze them lightly under running water, until they are not milky anymore and I then put them in cold water, in the fridge, for about thirty minutes. This makes them much gentler to the palate. They can also be lightly and quickly pickled by steeping them in vinegar, with a touch of sugar for a sour-sweet finish: after a short spell in the fridge, they are transformed into moreish half-moons that I use when I want to add a little extra zing – for instance, in a broccoli salad where the blanched (refreshed in cold water and well drained) broccoli are dressed with pickled red onions, black olives, crumbled feta and a good glug of oil. It makes for a really good, light lunch.
This is if I am not making one of the best Italian summer dishes, the one I am looking for on a hot day when cooking is really out of the question: a simple insalata di pomodori, a tomato salad. Here I would only use raw onions, nothing done to them, mixed with thickly sliced tomatoes, never too ripe (in true Italian fashion), oil, salt, oregano (always dry – fresh oregano is hardly ever used in Italian cookery). There is a lot going on here: sweetness and mild sourness from the tomatoes, pepperiness from the oil, crunchiness and piquant sweetness from the onions, particularly true if one is lucky enough to be using the sweet red onions from Tropea, Calabria – these amazing red onions are of such character they are now even protected as a special food by the Italian government. I would use these exceptional onions also in another favourite, an onion sandwich – it tastes better than it sounds. The original idea comes from James Beard and I have just given it an Italian twist by using pane pugliese, i.e. durum wheat bread from Apulia, golden and chewy. I spread it with Helman’s mayonnaise and stuff it with thinly sliced red onions and chopped parsley. It is hugely rewarding, especially with a cold beer, because onions, bread and drinks are best friends, as Homer tells us in book XI of the Iliad: “…she laid a bronze basket, with onion to go with the drinking, and pale honey and beside it bread, blessed pride of the barley…”.
It is common kitchen knowledge that cooking onions long and slow, does wonder to them, bringing out their sweetness. Take this splendid beef stew from Naples, called la genovese, literally the one from Genova (confusing, I know: a Neapolitan dish that calls itself from Genova). A solid piece of beef that is interminably simmered with a huge quantity of onions, until they turn into a mahogany, luscious sweet, meaty sauce, that makes for the most spectacular condiment for pasta. The meat is then sliced thickly and served as a secondo: a very Italian approach to be cooking two dishes in one.
What I want to share here though is a quicker and simpler dish, one where the humble onion is the star, bigoli in salsa, from Venice. White onions are braised in oil, without letting them take any colour and flavoured with salted sardines or anchovies and a splash of white wine. After about forty minutes simmering, the onions are greatly reduced in bulk and have become this punchy sauce, sweet and fishy, that is used to dress bigoli, a thick, coarse, spaghetti-like eggless pasta. It was traditionally a piatto di magro, something to be eaten on days when the Catholic church forbade meat and some sources claim it might be of Jewish heritage. Traditionalists would make this sauce only with sardines preserved packed in salt and cipolle Bianca di Ghioggia, white, round onions from Chioggia, a town not far from Venice. I made it with supermarket anchovy fillets preserved in oil and north London corner shop onions and it was still delicious.
For 500 g bigoli or bucatini or spaghetti (but it works well also with short, pasta like penne, rigatoni or lumaconi actually – just untraditional)
4 large white onions, about 1200 g net weight, peeled and sliced as thinly as you dare. I think the Magimix or a mandolin do the best job here
two or three tins of anchovy fillets in oil, 50 g each (30 g net)
100 ml white wine
The crucial point of this dish is that the onions must not take colour: we are not making caramelized onions, we are simply braising them. Keep this in mind, and it is an easy-peasy.
If the anchovies are preserved in olive oil, use it, otherwise stick to your standard olive oil. Grab a large shallow pan, one wider rather than taller – I used a 36 cm wide pan, this allows for a better reduction of the sauce.
Add two tins of anchovies with all their oil, or use a generous glug of olive oil. Warm it up slowly, stirring to dissolve the anchovies. Add the onions, toss them well in the fishy oil and let them simmer on medium for about 15 minutes.
Raise the heat, pour the wine and let it bubble away.
Return the heat to low, salt the onions very lightly (remember the anchovies are salty) and simmer them for about half an hour, until reduced in bulk and creamy. In some recipes, a little water is added to prevent the onions becoming golden – this was not necessary for me.
Taste them: if you feel the sauce could be more fishy, add the extra tin – the onions will end up very sweet and you do need some strong contrast to prevent the dish from becoming cloying, but how strong is up to you. I used three tins.
Simmer for extra twenty minutes. By the end, the sauce must be creamy and not soupy at all.
Taste it and check for salt and black pepper (I added quite a lot of it); I also added few drops of vinegar to further cut against the sweetness of the dish.
Cook the bigoli and dress them with the sauce, adding a handful of chopped parsley before serving – the Venetians, I suspect, would roll their eyes at this but I think it is an inspired touch.