These Onions Are Jammin'

From Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

Cook vi 1: to prepare food for eating by means of heat

Onion jam teams up with olives and anchovies, a heady trio for a thin pizza-like dough.
(Kim O'Donnel).

We don’t think about it much, but heat – be it dry, wet, direct or indirect – brings about chemical changes in the composition of raw food that makes possible any number of edibles such as mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, grilled cheese sandwiches and roasted squash. Even for raw foodists, who allow maximum temperatures of 118 degrees, heat is an essential ingredient of our cooking lives.

As a food geek, I am endlessly fascinated by the cellular transformation of the raw to the cooked, even when regarded as a simple pragmatic task (Dried beans plus liquid and heat equals soup, for example). But there’s one raw ingredient that consistently blows me away in the stovetop alchemy department. When slowly simmered in fat, the ordinary onion doesn’t just relax, it lets go all of all its inhibitions, morphing into a potful of jelly. Maybe marmalade is a more apt descriptor, but the results are heady, silky and sweet nonetheless and the experience can be, well, orgasmic.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s time to see what you’ve been missing all your life. The hardest part is slicing the onions, which need to be thin in order to caramelize properly. You also need a lot of onions, which when it comes to slicing ever so thinly, might cause you to cry like yours truly. After that, the process is a breeze; combine the onions and fat (and other aromatics, such as a bay leaf, herbs or garlic) in a pot fitted with a lid, turn the heat down low, cover and let the onions do their thing. I swear they must be cooing to each other under cover because after an hour, those onions are SWEET and gooey. Yeehaw.

So what does one do with a pot of magic caramelized onions, you ask? Team’em up with applesauce and pork chops, roast chicken or along side quinoa, short pasta or mashed potatoes, for starters. The all-time quintessential application, however, is to spread them on top of dough, a thin, almost crackery crust that is something between a pizza and a tart. In the south of France, particularly in Nice, that tart/pizza thing goes by the name pissaladiere (PEASAH-LAH-DEE-AIR), topped off with a briny duo of black olives and anchovies.

There are a few schools of thought on the dough; some folks prefer classic pastry dough baked in a tin, and others opt for the thin pizza variation, of which I’ve become a fan. Whatever you decide, make the onions. I have no doubt you’ll find use for them.

Pissaladiere (PEASAH-LAH-DEE-AIR)
(Onion tart with olives and anchovies)
As published in the Oct. 19, 2008 issue of New York Times Magazine; recipe adapted from “Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells
KOD notes in italics

1 ¼ ounce package (about 1 tablespoon) dry active yeast
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
large pinch sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil, for greasing bowl

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds yellow storage onions, thinly sliced (about 5 medium onions – you want about 6-7 cups’ worth. Can be done in a food processor with a 1-millimeter slicing blade, a mandoline or by hand)
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (I used three)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme (I had none, so substituted fresh rosemary)
salt and black pepper
butter, for greasing
10 anchovy fillets, halved lengthwise and widthwise
½ cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved

In a large bowl, add 1 cup of lukewarm water (about 80 degrees), yeast, 1 cup of the flour and the sugar and mix with a fork or rubber spatula until combined. Set aside for 15 minutes, or until foamy (I like to cover with a tea towel to create a warm environment).

Add remaining flour and salt, little by little, until dough is too stiff to stir. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead, adding flour if sticky, until smooth, about 10 minutes. Place dough in a large oiled bowl, cover and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about one hour.

Meanwhile, begin the topping: In a large saucepan fitted with a lid, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and a large pinch of salt, stir to combine, and turn heat to low. Cover and cook very gently, stirring occasionally, for about one hour. (Onions should be golden but not brown; they will reduce by about one-third of their original volume and resemble marmalade.)

Punch down dough to deflate, cover and allow to rise again until doubled in size, for an additional hour. Cut dough in half and refrigerate or freeze remaining dough for later use.

Remove lid and cook until liquid has reduced to a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a baking sheet about 11x15 in size. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into an 11x14-inch rectangle. (Dough will be thin, but without holes.)

Transfer dough to baking sheet and allow to rest about 15 minutes. Spread onions over dough, edge to edge. Top with anchovies and olives. Bake until crust is crisp, 15-20 minutes.

Yields about 12 pieces.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 22, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Bread , Dinner Tonight
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Mmmm what a wonderful looking tart! I know what I'll be making for dinner this weekend.

One thing to remember about caramelizing onions (which I learned the hard way the first time I tried it) is not only to slice them thinly, but to slice them EVENLY so they all cook at the same pace.

Posted by: Violet | October 22, 2008 9:42 AM

They're also good as a substitute for scallions in a scallion(less) pancake.

Posted by: Fran | October 22, 2008 12:46 PM

When I'm making apissaladiere I like to also throw on some whole fennel seeds

Posted by: jcburka | October 24, 2008 8:27 AM

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