The Great Caramelized Onions Debate

There’s been a kerfuffle over the past week around the issue of caramelized onions and whether or not they can be made in a short period of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes. (What you missed it?)

It started with this article on Slate.com, in which Tom Scocca complains that “recipe writers” lie about how long it takes to brown/caramelize onions (he uses the terms interchangeably). That caused a bit of a roar here and there, with some people agreeing with him that it takes at least 40 minutes to caramelize onions, and some disagreeing.

I can’t say I followed the issue very closely, as I’ve always been in the “low and slow” camp; my caramelized onions take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and I have many better things to do with my time than argue something like this. Then Jacob Burton of StellaCulinary.com weighed in, creating a somewhat annoying but quite informative video in which he proves that onions can be “caramelized” in ten minutes.

He raises some very good points about the kind of pan that is used and whatnot. However, I am not convinced. I absolutely do believe that Jacob Burton browned those onions in ten minutes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is one of terminology:

“Browning” and “caramelizing” are not exactly the same thing.

What Burton created was a really nice pan full of browned, fried onions. This is in contrast with what many people (myself included) refer to as “caramelized” onions, which are slow cooked for a long time. The result is something quite different. Fried onions have both a sharp and a mellow flavour, and a strong aroma. (Everyone loves the smell of fried onions!) Caramelized onions–and perhaps I should be specific and say slow caramelized onions–have a much mellower and sweeter flavour and a more low key, almost buttery aroma. The flavour of slow caramelized onions is hardly oniony at all; in some ways it’s more like baked apples in butter. (If you’re really patient, you can go for deep caramelized onions, like these.)

I suspect that back in Julia Childs’ day, few people confused the two. It was clear that fried onions were fried onions and caramelized onions were caramelized onions, the same way we distinguish between roasted meat and braised meat. But few people make the distinction now. I speculate it’s because “caramelized” sounds fancier and “fried” is like a swear word in some circles. With the rise of the “foodies,” and all the half-informed and competitive bombast that came with it, the result is that “caramelized” is now used whenever you apply heat to onions and make them turn colour.

Let’s drill down a bit more: Wikipedia makes a distinction between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In brief, the Maillard reaction is:

…a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.

And caramelization is:

… the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color. As the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? The caramelization article goes on:

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

Aha! I’m no chemist, but based on the Wikipedia description of pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen.

And there, perhaps, lies the difference. Most recipes for slow caramelized onions call for low heat in a covered pan. That’s nowhere near an oxygen free environment, but it’s a lot less oxygen rich than something sizzling in an open pan over high heat with a lot of stirring. (You need to read the whole article to get the full picture, but suffice to say that my recipe for slow caramelized onions uses a very moist environment, exactly what is needed for pyrolysis.)

I won’t go on with the technical stuff because there are plenty of people on Reddit who will gladly dedicated their dying breath to the splitting of such hairs. I’ll leave it to them.

My point is that when you fry onions fast and hot, you get a different plate of food than when you cook them slowly under low heat. Both are good, but they are different. And because they are different, they should have different names.

I propose “fried onions” and “caramelized onions.”

Me and Merguez Sausage

Merguez sausage is one of those things I should like, but don’t really. But why not? Tasty lamb meat spiced with harissa and other goodies then stuffed into slender tubes. Bring it on! But for some reason I find that merguez sausages never quite deliver the kind of sausagy goodness I regularly get from Italian sausages, smoked “farmer’s sausage,” and zingy bratwurst.

Let’s be clear; I don’t dislike the merguez. I just don’t love ’em as much as I expect to. I’m thinking about this because I had merguez sausages for dinner tonight (which, as usual, I liked but didn’t love). It brought to mind the first time I had a merguez sausage. Oh, you want to hear about that? Sure thing. Read on.

It was late October, 1993. I was in St-Tropez, in the south of France, by myself, taking photographs for a travel guide. I’d been on the road for six weeks and hadn’t had a home-cooked meal or even much of a conversation with anyone since I’d left Montreal. All I knew about St-Tropez before I got there was that I didn’t belong and that I saw Rachel from Another World go there “to escape,” back when I was a teenager home from school with the flu and we had only two channels on television.

My resources were meagre (this wasn’t a high paying job) so when it came time for lunch I skipped the fancy cafés along the quais (deserted as they were – remember this was late October) and looked for something more modest. Near a small square I found a sandwich kiosk that was open, a rare thing this long after the tourist season. The only thing he sold was grilled merguez sausages on chunks of baguette, which at the time seemed rather perfect.

So I ordered one, along with a can of Coca-Cola. The grumpy proprietor, who said not a word to me but sighed audibly at least four times, placed two red merguez sausages on an electric grill for approximately five seconds, then dropped them into a split piece of yesterday’s baguette. No mustard, no sauce. That, with the cola, came to something like 80 Francs, which I remember translated to about $12 Canadian. (Remember, that was almost 20 years ago.)

I ate it. It was tasty enough but really could have used some mustard and another five minutes on the grill. Whatever, I moved on, eating better and spending less in other towns down the line (Fréjus, Cannes, Nice, Manosque, Apt, and then the long road back to Paris).

Since then I’ve had merguez sausages many times, usually as part of a couscous royale. It’s never bad. It’s never great. But I keep trying. Perhaps what I need to do is revisit the original situation, even if only in spirit. I need to grill a couple of fresh merguez sausages – for at least five minutes – and put them on a fresh chunk of split bread (something softer than a baguette) along with an enormous blob of Dijon mustard. And I should open a cold beer to go with it (perhaps a crisp and crackling summer lager). Maybe that would re-boot my perception or at least boot out my prejudice.

Michael Ruhlman’s Tomato Basil Pasta with Tomato Butter

I heard about this recipe some time ago, and when I found it on Ruhlman’s web site I vowed to make it as soon as possible. Weeks passed. Months. Finally, a few weeks ago I gave it a shot and wow, I can’t believe I waited so long. This recipe is very easy to make and is packed with delicious flavor. The sauce is a buttery reduction of tomato water, and it’s topped with raw fresh tomatoes and basil, making it essentially salsa cruda but with the richness of a butter sauce. Super summery, and super delicious!

spaghetti with tomato butter

Ruhlman’s original recipe yields four servings. I have adjusted it for two, and made a few other small modifications (for example, I don’t use quite as much butter). I also clarified the instructions. This seems like a good time to post this, as apparently tomato water is “in” again.

Notes:

  • Use truly ripe and juicy tomatoes; preferably not roma. Ironically, romas are typically best for sauce because of their lower moisture level, but for this recipe you want tomatoes that are quite watery.
  • You will need a fine strainer (preferably hand-held). Also a whisk (although a spoon will do in a pinch).

Michael Ruhlman’s Tomato Basil Pasta with Tomato Butter (Blork version)

Yield: 2 servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 or 3 ripe and juicy tomatoes, large dice
  • 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt
  • 180 g spaghetti
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, sliced thin or minced – whichever you prefer (preferably fresh and juicy, not the cheap stuff from China)
  • About 1/2 cup of basil, sliced into ribbons
  • olive oil as needed
  • 40 g cold butter, cut into three chunks (Note: if you think that only the good die young, and you feel like a badass, use 50+ g butter)

Method

  1. Put the diced tomatoes in a non-reactive bowl big enough to fit it comfortably and be able to stir without spilling. Mince a pinch of the basil and add it to the tomatoes. Season with the salt, toss well, and cover. Ideally you should let this sit on the counter for a couple of hours, but in a pinch 30 minutes will do.
  2. Put a big pot of salted water on to boil.
  3. Cook the pasta, drain it, and put it back in the pot. Oil the pasta to keep it from sticking to itself.
  4. In the meantime (3 or 4 minutes before the pasta is done) heat a bit of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the garlic and cook it until it is just beginning to soften (a couple of minutes). Do not brown it!
  5. Hold the hand strainer over the pan and dump the tomatoes into it so the water flows through the strainer and into the pan. Shake to get all the water into the pan, then return the tomatoes to the bowl.
  6. Whisk the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Add the butter one piece at a time while continuing to whisk.  Keep the sauce moving until all the butter is melted.  Turn off the heat. (As you’re doing this, give the pasta an occasional shake to make sure it isn’t sticking.)
  7. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat evenly.
  8. Divide the pasta among two bowls. Top with the tomatoes and basil, scratch on a bit of freshly ground pepper, and serve. (Note: do not use Parmesan cheese with this dish.)

Enjoy!

Cannellini Beans

I used to hate beans. Couldn’t stand them in any variety or variation. Fortunately I managed to get over that dislike a few years ago and my colon is eternally grateful.

While I’m still not crazy about classic old fashioned baked beans (I can’t fully erase my childhood revulsion) I’ve become a big fan of some of the bean dishes that I’ve discovered since my turnaround. These include refried beans, bean salads, pork and beans, and the ultimate simple bean dish, Tuscan white beans with sage.

That last dish, Tuscan white beans with sage, is little more than white beans done up with a bit of garlic, sage, olive oil, and tomatoes. Martine introduced it to me a few years ago as a dish she used to make when she lived in San Francisco. The classic Tuscan way is to go very light on the tomatoes or even omit them entirely. But Martine and I are not Tuscan so we gladly go heavier on the red sauce because we like it so much. Intentare una causa su di me.

One of the keys to good Tuscan bean dishes is to use the right beans. There are, in fact, many types of Italian white beans, but the ones you are most likely to find on this side of the pond (and which are, for my money, the best choice anyway) are cannellini beans.

If only it were that simple.

It gets complicated because there seems to be some confusion here in North America as to what exactly are cannellini beans. The Italians don’t seem to have any problem with this, but most North American sources I’ve checked say they’re just white kidney beans. You might even find an Italian source who agrees, but if so it’s because that Italian source doesn’t really know American white kidney beans.

The two are related, but are not the same.

True Italian cannellini beans have a longer, more oblong shape than kidney beans (which are, ahem, kidney shaped). More importantly, cannellini beans have softer and more delicate skins, and a noticeably creamier interior. Taste-wise, they’re probably similar although I have not done a side-by-side comparison of undressed beans. But the texture difference is significant, and it’s enough to make me seek out the real thing for more refined bean dishes such as Tuscan white beans or Pasta e fagioli all’isolana. White kidney beans, on the other hand, are better for dishes where there’s a lot more stuff in the pot, such as chili.

cannellini beans

Beautiful cannellini beans.

In my experience – which admittedy is not vast but at least notable – I have not been able to find real cannellini beans that are sourced from North America. I recently bought some Canadian white beans that were labeled as both white kidney beans and “cannellini” (the quotation marks were on the label). They were not cannellini beans. They were decent enough white kidney beans, but not cannellinis.

Here in Montreal I’ve only found two brands of authentic Italian cannellini beans (both imported from Italy). The easiest to find are the Bioitalia brand organic cannellini beans, which you can find at any decent natural foods store and most Italian grocers (such as Milano on Boul. St-Laurent and the Valmont chain of green grocers). You can also find them in the specialty section of most regular supermarkets like IGA, Provigo, and Loblaw’s. They’re not cheap; they generally run between $2.50 and $2.80 for a 398 ml can.

If you look a bit harder you can find Bernardo brand cannellini beans (non-organic) for less. They have them at Milano for something like $1.29 for a 400 ml can. [Update: I was at Milano today (Nov. 21/11) and they are .89 a can!]

By the way, forget about finding them dried. I’ve looked all over and haven’t found them. Martine saw some marked “cannellini” in a store on Market Street in San Francisco but it was too large a bag to lug around all day so she didn’t buy them and therefore I can’t comment on their authenticity. There’s a place where you can order US-grown so-called cannellini beans online, but shipping to Canada is expensive, and based on the photographs on the site they look like white kidney beans, not cannellinis.

Thus, if you find yourself contemplating a bean recipe that calls for cannellini beans, be aware that you can substitute white kidney beans or even white navy beans, but your result will not be as refined and luscious as if you take the trouble to seek out and use the real thing.

After all that, here’s something to get you started.

Blork’s Quick & Saucy Tuscan White Beans with Sage

Ingredients

  • 2 400 ml cans of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed.
  • 1/2 a 800 ml can of whole Italian tomatoes. (You can use the other half of the can that you used a few days ago to make Pasta e fagioli all’isolana).
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced paper thin (or minced; your choice)
  • 4 or 5 fresh sage leaves, slivered (be careful not to use too much; sage can be harsh when overused)
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • A sprinkle of grated Parmesano Reggiano for serving

Method

  1. Warm half of the olive oil in a deep saucepan and add the garlic.
  2. Sweat the garlic for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until it starts to turn translucent (don’t let it brown; the heat should be low enough that the garlic barely sizzles).
  3. Add the sage and stir for 30 seconds or so.
  4. Add the tomatoes and turn up the heat so it simmers. Stir and use a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes.
  5. Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, checking two or three times to make sure it’s not cooking too hard (give it a stir and further break up the tomatoes).
  6. Add the rinsed cannellini beans and a bit of salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for another 20-30 minutes, again checking two or three times, and gently stirring.
  7. Turn off the heat. Stir in the rest of the olive oil. Check, and if necessary adjust, the seasoning.

Serve hot or warm with a sprinkle of grated Parmesano Reggiano.

Yeild: four side dishes or two hearty mains. This goes well with grilled Italian sausages, roasted meat or poultry, or on its own with some crusty bread and a salad.

Note: For a more “authentic” Tuscan version, cut the amount of tomatoes in half and add a bit more olive oil at the end. For a super saucy version, double the amount of tomatoes used.

tuscan white beans with tomato and sage

This is how tomatoey the recipe above makes it.