Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino is a thoroughly enjoyable read of a cookbook, with beautiful pictures matched to interesting, comprehensive recipes all related to the unifying theme of the noble allium. Which is not at all high on my list of favorite foods—in fact, the taste of raw onions is one of the most repellent flavors to my palate, so I tend to write them off as an ingredient I can tolerate at best, and avoid at all costs when raw or undercooked. It was a pleasure to challenge that notion with a few recipes from the book, although results were mixed.
Winslow and Ambrosino have been a husband-and-wife food writing and photography team for many years, starting with SFR, where they worked as culture editor and photographer, respectively, in the late '90s and early aughts and, notably, a long stint at Gourmet Magazine not long after. Their recipes reflect a sensibility regarding food that is, at turns, both humble and globally far-reaching in its scope. Humble in that none of the ingredients are too expensive to source, although some of them are a little difficult to find. I made a spiced onion brittle called vadouvan, a French-Indian dish that calls for curry leaves I could only find at Talin Market and, unfortunately, on the very day that the grocery store section closed (they'll still serve dumplings through January). If I want to make it again I'll have to make a pilgrimage to Albuquerque for my more exotic ingredients. Still, I probably could have omitted it without too much trouble.
There is even a strong appreciation for New Mexican foods apparent in these pages, no doubt inspired by the authors having lived in Santa Fe; demonstrated in direct homages like a page devoted to New Mexican enchiladas, and more indirect, subtle nods like a Burmese seed salad inspired by now-closed, legendary local noodle house Mu Du Noodles.
This book is global, in that the authors' appreciation for the foods of different cultures, inspired by their mutual lifetimes of travel across the globe, resulted in recipes that give equal appreciation to Middle Eastern, North African and European culinary traditions. They also include bits of practical advice on cleaning and preparing onions and little historical anecdotes about the history of this cheap, practical, flavorful staple.
Everything is arranged intuitively according to color and season, with some recipes featuring onions only as supporting characters, and others highlighting them as the main event.
The vadouvan I made was delicious, although I would recommend undercooking this dish slightly, since it's essentially something that will be used to spice up other foods, such as an addition to lamb meatballs or roasted vegetables. Vadouvan is made by frying and then roasting finely chopped onions with a fragrant spice mixture, and it really drove home how delicious onions can be, especially when cooked more than once and in multiple ways. I made a savory granola as well, adding it to a mix of seeds and nuts and then roasting it again, and if I had cooked the original onion mixture too long it would have burned while the granola acquired its roast. The result was delicious, an exotically spiced granola completely unlike anything I could buy in a store.
My other recipe attempt was not so successful. I mentioned that I do not like the taste of raw onions or garlic, and the recipe I chose called for both. But, wanting to give the book a fair shot, I powered through. Out of a deep sense of nostalgia for Mu Du Noodles, I attempted the Burmese seed salad, with fried shallots on top (although baked shallots would also work, if you're health-conscious.) On paper, the recipe looked amazing, full of green vegetables and a strong herbal and spice profile, which is exactly the kind of thing I like to make for myself at home. But I ran into a problem with the dressing, which called for raw ginger and garlic, along with chopped raw shallot. These flavors were way too dominant for me, even with a cupful of basil, pickled ginger, and grapefruit added to balance it out. It was all I could taste. The book also recommends tossing Napa cabbage directly into a mix of grapefruit and pickled ginger, then adding that in the dressing, but the resulting texture was too soggy, and I found myself wishing I had added the dressing last, as needed, to preserve the bright crunch of the cabbage. I would absolutely attempt this recipe again, although I would sauté or blanche the ginger and garlic first, just to mute the edge a little.
Ultimately, Onions Etcetera brings a thoughtful consideration to a commonplace ingredient. I found plenty of inspiration for both casual dinners and more involved, day-long culinary projects, and all this from a book based in a food that has never really captivated me. It seems I have to give onions a second chance after all. Dammit.
Looking for your own copy? The folks at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse (202 Galisteo St., 988-4226) tell us a new batch is on the way. Give 'em a call.