Saturday, October 31, 2009

Onion-Free Cooking

My sister called the other night, complaining that so many of my recipes, especially the soups, start by sautéing onions in olive oil. I should be sympathetic. She, my mother, and I share a list of food allergies including onions, tomatoes, chocolate, etc. Each of us reacts differently or more or less severely to our allergens but my sister reacts most to members of the allium family (onions, garlic, etc.)

So, this is the first posting with information about onion-free cooking. First, a replacement for the first step in so many recipes, the sautéing of onions.

Suggestion #1: substitute sautéed carrots and celery (or parsnips and celery for a light-colored recipe)

The French start many classic recipes with a mirepoix. A mirepoix is minced and sautéed onions, carrots, and celery. Some cuisines use variations of this. For example, the "Holy Trinity" of Louisiana cooking is like a mirepoix except that the carrots are replaced by bell peppers.

As Julia Child said in her The Way to Cook (Knopf, 1994), “The mirepoix is one of fine cooking’s great inspirations, an all-purpose flavor enhancer made of finely diced and sautéed carrots and onions,and often celery and ham. Used in sauces, with braised vegetables like celery, or with chicken breasts poached in butter, it imparts that real ‘je ne sais quoi’ of sophistication to anything it is associated with. You may want to triple or quadruple the recipe,since a mirepoix keeps nicely in the freezer.”

Oh, bless Saint Julia! It hadn't occurred to me that I could pre-make the base sautéed vegetables for a recipe and save valuable weekday evening time!! Gotta try that.

Meanwhile, back to onion-free cooking. Since a mirepoix is adjusted for different recipes, why not substitute the other two members of the mixture if you must avoid the onions. You are not trying to make fake onion flavor rather you are using slightly carmelized carrots and celery to perform a similar task. If you want to preserve the whiter color for your recipe, replace the carrots with parsnips.

Suggestion #2: Use parsley by the bunch

Both flat-leafed parsley and curly parsley can add flavor to recipes when used in bulk. Like many green vegetables, their flavors mellow with cooking. So, if you are making an onion-free soup, put a finely chopped whole bunch (minus the thicker stems) of parsley in it.

Flat-leafed and curly parsley have two very different flavors. Flat-leafed parsley is the milder of the two and is a staple of Italian cooking.

A lot of grocery stores shelve the two parsleys with the cilantro so be careful to know which you are buying. Cilantro can also add a wonderful flavor but it is very different from either parsley. If your grocery story is bad about labeling, just sniff the bunch. If it's cilantro you will know it by its pungent aroma.

Cilantro is also known as coriander leaves, or Chinese parsley. It is used in many cuisines and provides the aromatic flavor in a good restaurant salsa.

The next batch of soup I make will be without onions to provide "proof of concept." There's a head of cauliflower in the fridge needed to be roasted for soup.

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Imprecise & Inexpensive

Two themes predominate in my approach to cooking. 1. Daily cooking of flavorful food need not be a precise art. 2. You can be an adventurous cook on a budget. Cooking and eating should be fun for both cookers and eaters.