FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Bulbous Pungency

Toast two slices of whole wheat or multi-grain bread -- preferably one that has been naturally leavened -- and spread a thick coating of real mayonnaise across the toast. Make a sandwich by layering the mayonnaise-coated bread with slices of raw onion, sharp cheddar cheese and tart apple.

While this may be an unorthodox approach to begin a food column with a recipe, as opposed to ending with one, I felt obliged to list one of my favorites: apple, onion and cheddar sandwich. Besides, eating the above sandwich will make the remaining reading more enjoyable.

Onion lovers -- like garlic lovers -- can be fanatical about their favorite bulb. My friend Angelo, for example, virtually drools at the site of them. This became clear as he chatted with me while unconsciously eating raw onions I had just cut for soup. In fact, his love of onions is so apparent that it has earned him the nickname amongst friends as "onion boy". In this era of processed snack foods, with ingredient lists that contain unpronounceable words and are sometimes paragraphs long, there are far worse foods to be infatuated with.

Though garlic receives more publicity in regards to health benefits than onions, they are obviously closely related; along with chives, leeks and other types of onions (and oddly asparagus), garlic and onions are members of the allium -- or lily -- family. And as with garlic, onions have been used as a folk medicine throughout recorded history. In fact, onions have been employed medicinally for more than 3000 years, but unfortunately their preventive and curative benefits are often considered little more than folklore. As far back as ancient Egypt the slaves were fed large amounts of garlic and onions to remain healthy while constructing the pyramids; the Egyptians used onions as medication for literally thousands of ailments. The esteemed Greek physician, Hippocrates, prescribed onions as a cold cure and also applied them to wounds to alleviate infection. And during the American Civil War Ulysses S. Grant refused to march his troops forward without an ample supply of the humble bulb. There is also one onion "tidbit" that will be of particular interest to many male baby boomers: a 1596 book entitled The Great Herbal claimed that regular applications of onion juice to a bald scalp could possibly grow hair.

Onions do not contain any fat and only have a mere trace of natural sodium; they also carry great nutritional value. Though it's difficult to imagine anyone eating an entire onion, one medium-sized bulb has as much vitamin C as an orange and twice as much as an apple. In fact, in days gone by, because they were more readily available and easier to store than oranges, onions were often brought on long voyages to prevent scurvy -- the infamous Captain Cook mandated that there be an amount of twenty pounds of onions for each crew member aboard his ships.

In order to reap the most healthful benefits of onions they should be consumed raw, but are obviously much more universally appealing and versatile when cooked. Luckily, though, heat and cooking only minimally reduce the potency and health qualities of onions. What's more, cooking and caramelizing the natural sugars in onions will make the pungent and sometimes harsh raw flavor a mere memory. An example of this is onion soup where the onions are caramelized to such an extent that one might believe there has been cane sugar added to the soup. Though it is only natural to brown onions quickly and over high heat, they will be more thoroughly caramelized (brown and sweet) if cooked over low or medium heat for a longer period of time.

There is currently no remedy for the tearing and eye-watering effects of onions, but their vapors will be diminished slightly if the bulbs are chilled prior to preparation. When chopping or slicing onions do so with a sharp stainless knife; chopping them in a food processor or with a dull knife will bruise the onions and can cause a strong or slightly bitter flavor. Generally, onions are available year round but specific varieties have distinct seasons. Purchase onions that feel heavy for their size and have dry, papery skins with no moister or major blemishes. Extremely dry onions or those with soft spots signify age or incorrect storage. Store onions in a cool, dry area with ample ventilation and away from direct sunlight for up to two months. Once an onion is cut the remainder should be securely wrapped, refrigerated and used within a few days.

French Onion Soup
Yield: 5-6 cups

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 large onions, peeled and sliced thinly
2 cups beef stock
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 slices French bread, toasted
4 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
2 ounces grated Swiss cheese

Melt the butter and oil in a heavy saucepan. Add the onions and saute over low heat until onions are golden brown, about 40 minutes. This is the most important part in the entire soup making process: the onions have to be caramelized to achieve a rich color and flavor. Stir in the beef stock, chicken stock, salt and pepper; bring the soup to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer. Skim any impurities that may have risen to the surface and cook the soup for 30 minutes.

To serve, ladle the soup into ovenproof bowls and top each soup with a slice of French bread and grated cheese. Bake the soup in a 375-degree oven for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and golden brown.

Beer Battered Onion Rings

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup room temperature beer
2 large onions, peeled and cut into rings
oil or shortening for deep-frying

In a medium bowl combine the flour, salt, pepper and baking powder. Add the egg yolks and beer; stir until combined. Fill a heavy pot with at least 2 inches of vegetable oil or vegetable shortening and heat it to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the batter. Add the onion rings to the batter and toss gently to coat them. Carefully fry the onion rings a few at a time until crisp and golden brown.

Four-Onion Focaccia

1 package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup lukewarm water
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, sliced thin
1 large red onion, sliced thin
1 large shallot, sliced thin
4 scallions, sliced thin
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Combine the yeast, sugar and water in the bowl of an electric mixer and allow it to rest for 15 minutes, or until the mixture is foamy. Add the flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt and 3 tablespoons of the oil. With the dough hook attachment knead the dough for 8 minutes, or alternately, knead the dough for 10 minutes by hand on a floured surface. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl; turn the dough over to coat it with the oil. Cover the dough with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let it rise for 1-1/2 hours, or until it is doubled in bulk. Roll the dough out to fit a 10 x 15 inch pan, or 14 inch round pizza pan; cover the dough loosely and let it rise for 1 hour, or until it is almost double in bulk.

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl combine the remaining 3 tablespoons oil with the yellow onion, red onion, shallot, scallions, chopped rosemary, black pepper and remaining teaspoon of salt. Sprinkle the onion mixture evenly across the dough and top with the Parmesan cheese. Bake the focaccia in the preheated oven for 35 to 45 minutes, or until it is golden brown. Let the focaccia cool for a few minutes before slicing; serve it warm or at room temperature.

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