One of the earliest cookbooks, by the Roman gourmet Apicius sometime around A.D. 800, included many references to the onion, a root vegetable believed to have originated in central Asia and was a staple of the prehistoric diet.
We're still writing about onions and their benefits, both culinary and medicinal. Their culinary success is easy to explain: Raw onions are pungent. A slice adds punch to a hamburger while minced onions tart up egg salad. Cooked onions are mellow, somewhat sweet. Creamed or caramelized, they're tasty side dishes. French onion soup or an onion gratin can serve as a meal with bread and a green salad.
The onion's medicinal value is harder to establish. Early Egyptians buried onions with their pharaohs because they believed onions, with their circle within a circle structure, symbolized eternity. Pliny the Elder catalogued ancient Roman beliefs that the onion could cure everything from dysentery to insomnia, and to heal everything from dog bites to toothaches. By the Middle Ages, onions were a major part of European cuisine and were believed to alleviate headaches and snake bites and to reduce hair loss.
Today, research shows that onions contain quecetin, an antioxidant compound that reacts favorably on many fronts. It helps to eliminate free radicals in the body and to regenerate Vitamin E. Onions also are a source of Vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber and folic acid.
Classic onion soup with cheese often brings to memory the French cuisine known as Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee. (AP Photo)
But the major benefit of onions is that they are pleasing to the palate and are available year-round. We've collected several recipes in which storage onions star rather than play a supporting role. But first, a note from the National Onion Association on how to avoid tears when handling raw onions:
Refrigerate onions a few hours before cutting. Then, start by cutting off the top. Peel the outer onion skin down to the root and leave the root end intact while cutting. This reduces tearing because the sulfuric compounds that cause tears are concentrated at the root end.
Julia Child introduced French cuisine to American kitchens in 1961 with the publication of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking.'' Two years later she began ''The French Chef'' television series. A classic French dish is Onion Soup Gratineed With Cheese, and her version is from the paperback edition of "The French Chef Cookbook'' (Ballantine, $14).
''This turns onion soup into a hearty main course,'' she writes. ''All you need to complete the meal is a bottle of red wine, perhaps a green salad and fresh fruit.''
Soupe a l'Onion, Maison
3 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon olive oil or cooking oil
About 1 1/2 pounds or 5 to 6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts hot beef bouillon (homemade or canned bouillon diluted with 2 cups of water)
1 cup red or white wine
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon sage
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter and the oil in a heavy 4-quart saucepan or casserole; add the sliced onions and stir up to coat with the butter. Cover the pan and cook over moderately low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are tender and translucent. Then uncover the pan, raise the heat to moderately high, and stir in the salt and sugar. (Sugar, by caramelizing, helps onions to brown.) Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions have turned an even deep golden brown.
Then lower heat to moderate, stir in the flour, and add a bit more butter if flour does not absorb into a paste with the onions. Cook slowly, stirring continually, for about 2 minutes to brown the flour lightly. Remove from heat.
Pour in about a cup of the hot bouillon, stirring with a wire whip to blend flour and bouillon. Add the rest of the bouillon and the wine, bay and sage and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly for 30 to 40 minutes, season to taste with salt and pepper, and the soup is done. If you are not serving immediately, let cool uncovered, then cover and refrigerate.
Serve with French bread and grated Parmesan cheese, or bake with the cheese as follows:
Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee
1 loaf French bread
Olive oil or melted butter
Onion soup, (recipe above) brought to a simmer
1/4 cup cognac (optional)
1 peeled 2-inch raw onion
2 ounces Swiss cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese, mixed
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Cut the bread into slices 1-inch thick, paint lightly with oil or butter and arrange in one layer on a baking sheet. Place in the middle level of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until beginning to brown lightly; turn and brown lightly for 15 to 20 minutes on the other side. These are called ''croutes.''
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Pour the hot soup into a serving casserole or baking dish. Pour in the optional cognac, grate in the onion and shave the piece of cheese into fine slivers and strew over the soup. Place a closely packed layer of croutes over the top of the soup and spread on the grated cheese, covering the croutes completely. Sprinkle a tablespoon of oil or butter over the cheese and set the soup in the middle level of the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until soup is bubbling slowly and cheese has melted.
Meanwhile, heat your broiler to red hot. Just before serving, run the soup under the hot broiler for a moment to brown the cheese lightly. Pass remaining croutes in a bread try along with the soup.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
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