Well. I know it’s May, and mid-May at that, and technically spring and all, so I probably shouldn’t be writing about something so wintry as braised onions. But today it was a cool 56 degrees outside, and anyway, Braised onions. With butter. And Madeira. On pasta. It’s never the wrong season for that, is it? I hope not.
Plus, I hear the weather has been iffy on the East Coast too, and heck, in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s autumn, so it must be chilly. Right? Right. I feel entirely justified.
Last week we had a house guest. His name is Ben, and he is an opera director, and his wife is one of Brandon’s old friends from college. The two of them are moving to Seattle this summer, so he came to scout an apartment, and we put him up in our guest room in the basement, which is really more like a storage room for papers and files and mix tapes from an ex-boyfriend of mine, and more than a little scary, as you can imagine. But he didn’t complain. He was very brave. We barely knew each other, but we had a great week. We sneaked a bottle of bourbon and some chocolate into my purse and went to the opera. We played card games and listened to old Ray Charles, and on his last night in town, Ben cooked steak and mushrooms and opened a bottle of red wine, and we yapped so long and late that Brandon and I had to take a nap the next afternoon. He also found a house to rent only 10 or so blocks from ours, and needless to say, I feel a very fine summer coming on.
But the best part, and the reason why I am yapping so long and late about all this, is that one day, after wandering the neighborhood, Ben came home with a gift for us: a first-edition copy of James Beard’s Beard on Pasta. He’s a great fan of Beard, he confessed, and he had noticed that we only had one of his books, an old, beaten-up copy of The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery that lives on the shelf above our sink. Obviously, it was time that we got another. And, he noted, the braised onion sauce in Beard on Pasta happens to be very good; we really ought to try it.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible to resist a book whose introduction begins with this sort of humble, hopeful, utterly disarming statement: “This is a book about good times to have with pasta.” Especially when it has a swirly, old fashioned illustrated cover. And even more so when it goes on to say such things as this:
We Americans have been intimidated for far too long by other people’s opinions of what we should eat. We’ve been even more intimidated, I think, in the area of table manners and propriety. Pasta is not a mannerly food to eat. And I remember when hostesses in this country were so insecure and etiquette-conscious that they would break up noodles into inch-long pieces before they cooked them, and would choose elbow macaroni over spaghetti so that their guests wouldn’t risk the crime of slurping at the table. I think we’ve gotten over that kind of tearoom niceness, but now there is another worry people have about eating pasta, which is of not doing things in the proper Italian way. They worry about whether the Italians use bowls or plates, and whether it’s proper to serve a soup spoon along with the fork as a help in picking up the strands, and how to avoid slurping up the last inches of long noodles. To which I say that it’s time to stop worrying and start enjoying. (Pages xii-xiii)
To which I say: James Beard, you died entirely too soon. If you were still around, we’d like it very much if you would join us for lunch tomorrow, when we will dig, entirely unmannerly, into the leftovers of some pasta with your braised onion sauce. Which, for the record, is very, very good.
James Beard’s braised onion sauce is essentially that: braised onions. But as you might expect, these onions are special. First, they have a lot of butter. We’re talking about Beard here, people, and the man did not skimp. For two large onions, he calls for two(!) sticks(!) – that’s eight ounces, or HALF A POUND – of butter. Heaven help us all. Ben confided, however, that he had made the sauce with half that amount, and that it had turned out beautifully – and still very buttery. So I took his advice and used only one stick. It coated the onions amply, enough that they could cook slowly and sweetly without the least bit of scorching, and when they were golden and melty, so soft that they slumped into lazy heaps, I stirred in a good splash of Madeira, which simmered with their juices and made a sort of chunky, rustic sauce.
Tossed with hot pasta and topped with salt and Parmesan cheese, it tasted rich and winy, dark and deep, delicious. Delicious enough, even, to make 56 degrees in mid-May feel entirely excusable – until the leftovers are gone, at least.
Braised Onion Sauce
Adapted from Beard on Pasta, by James Beard
James Beard’s commentary on this recipe reads, “Long-cooked onions have a naturally sweet taste. This is a substantial sauce, and I like to serve it with a pasta that has body, something like bows or wagon wheels or wide ribbons or macaroni.” I served it with shells.
8 Tbsp. (4 oz., or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1 ½ lb. yellow onions, halved and sliced about ¼-inch thick
1 Tbsp. sugar
¼ cup Madeira
¾ lb. hot cooked pasta
Salt, for serving
Grated Parmesan, for serving
In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent. Stir in the sugar, reduce the heat to low or medium-low – keep an eye on your stove and see what seems best – and cook the onions very gently for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (Do not cook them too quickly or over too high heat, or they will get dry and papery.) As they cook, they will become meltingly soft and juicy, and they should caramelize to a deep shade of amber. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a couple of minutes to combine, and then add the pasta to the pan. Using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce.
Serve with a generous sprinkling of salt and some grated cheese.
Yield: about 4 servings