Onions. Yes, you know, those giant mesh bags that sit in your walk-in like a second-string quarterback? With a little imagination, it could be time to play this transformative vegetable to make pizzas and pastas more exciting. For centuries, these little sulfurous flavor bombs have been manipulated to transfer flavor into sauces and paired with other ingredients to turn foods from boring to exciting. Their texture can range from liquid to crunchy and best of all, onions are one of the best value-for-taste products in your pizzeria.
The Big Sphinx Stink
Onions are a genus of flowering plants in the allium family. The Egyptian peasants would buy them from small market stalls, sliced and serve with ale and a common flatbread named ta before returning to work on the pyramids. It is thought that Alexander the Great found the onion in Egypt then brought it to Greece. Ironically, we see a trend as the dark-age peasants in the time of the Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and Franks ate onions with porridge or bread, ale, cabbage and sometimes a piece of salt pork.
The Allium Family
The Allium family and the taste of each type of bulb and scape is distinguished by pungency and concentration of the sulfur compounds. Here is a list of alliums minus the garlic and leek.
White Onion: This stronger, spicier and more pungent onion than the yellow onions. This onion has a more pronounced onion flavor but falls apart when cooked. The crisp texture is perfect for onion rings.
Red Onion: Sometimes referred to as the salad onion because of its sweetness and less punchy spice when raw. You can cook with this onion and the color fades to pink when heated. This onion caramelizes easily after roasting or atop a pizza which mellows the flavor.
Yellow Onion: Sometimes referred as the brown onion. This is the workhorse of many kitchens because it is cheaper and plentiful. The flavor is strong but not overpowering and caramelize easily and the flesh holds up well when cooking.
Sweet Onions: The mildest of all are usually odd shaped and thus hard to cut in a kitchen setting especially with new chefs. This may be called Vidalia Georgia, Texas or Walla Walla and are great for raw preparations. When heating, they lose that oniony flavor fastest so keep that in mind.
Shallot: This tastes like a cross between a yellow and red onion and is a favorite of chefs because the texture doesn’t break down easily. In a fine dining environment, the small flesh enables chefs to fabricate this into fine dice in sauces and entrees. These can be pickled very easily in small rings for a great pickled garnish.
Others: There are many other varieties of allium like the wild ramp, spring onion, leek, chive, Spanish calcot, pearl, grey shallot, wild lampascioni, and ramsons.
Onions can be paired with an enormous number of foods. Because they act as a building block for all things culinary like the flavor base “Holy Trinity” or Mirepoix using celery, onion, and carrot. Here are some other pairings that really bring out the flavor of the onion: bacon, liver, bay, butter, orange, parsley, thyme, brandy, vinegar, citrus, toasted nuts, apple, cocoa, honey, chili peppers, cream, milk, meats, mushrooms, sugar, stocks, salt sage, rosemary, pepper, nutmeg, oil, anchovies, apples, basil, wheat, carrot, cheddar, comte cheese, goat, fromage blanc, Gruyere, Parmigiano, Swiss, Emmental, potatoes, tomato, saffron, curry, peas, oregano, bitter greens, mangoes, cucumbers, cilantro, nutmeg, mint and blue cheese.
Onions in the pizzeria
To propel onions to the top of your best-selling pizza, you’ll need a plan, a few co-starring ingredients, and your finger on the pulse of popular flavors. Here are some ideas that I have had success with:
• Curried onions with raisons. Eight cups sliced red onions in a pan with a quarter cup of canola oil and a one or two cups curry powder and one cup of water. Toss well with gloves and place into an oven to cook. As soon as cooked, toss two handfuls of raisons in the hot mix to re-hydrate. You may add this directly on a pizza, grind up and mix with ricotta, add to a hydrated batch of dough for curry bread or curry pizza dough.
• Chipotle Onions. Same recipe as above but instead of curry, add one small can of chipotle in adobo sauce to the onions and squash with hands and mix well. Roast the same way and add blueberries for a great sauce. This can also be ground up and made into a righteous barbeque sauce or sauced on a pizza with pork and provolone or kneaded into a bread.
• Pickled Shallot Rings. Cut large shallots into rings, place into clean and sanitized jars or lexans with tight lids. Combine and heat up 3 cups vinegar, 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, 2 tablespoons salt, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 bay leaf, 5 whole cloves, 5 juniper berries and 7 whole peppercorns. When boiling, add the shallots and turn heat off. Pour the heated liquid into the jars and let cool. When cool close the lid and refrigerate.
• Onion Fettucine Alfredo. Cut the ends off two white onions and peel the outside skin. Turn the onion on end and make a vertical cut halfway down the onion. Using your slicer or sharp knife to cut ¼ inch cuts horizontally across the onion to form “fettuccine” like strips. Choose the longest strips and steam with lid on for 10 to 12 minutes until just translucent. Cool the onion then heat up your favorite cream sauce and add the onion fettuccine, Parmigiano and sauté’ for only 30 seconds. This is great with bacon or strips of crispy Prosciutto di Parma and, it’s gluten free.
Onion and Sausage Petal Pizza
This small pizza powerhouse packs a wonderful combination of onions, cream, spinach and sausage. This 10-inch pizza exhibits both the stronger raw onions baked on the pizza and the delicious sausage-ricotta stuffed onion petals.
Get the Onion and Sausage Petal Pizza recipe.
JOHN GUTEKANST owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.