The onion is the most undercooked vegetable in the American kitchen. We know our meat times, pressing a thumb to a burger patty sizzling away in a cast iron pan, feeling for medium rare, or a fork to braised beef shortrib, looking for that moment of total tenderness. But onions? We think if we chop one up and saute it for two minutes, it’s good to go.
So wrong. Want caramelized onions on top of that burger? Better start 30minutes before you put that burger in the pan. A long slow saute in fat … butter, olive oil, bacon, suet … breaks down the onion into velvet sweetness. This is why shallots are so often recommended for quick pan sauces, because they cook so much faster than a yellow or red onion.
But for weeknight cooking, when our fingers ramble through the vegetable drawers looking for some credible items for a quick pasta sauce, we are more likely to find a lowly yellow onion. And so the trick is to give it enough time to cook all the way through, and not be a discordant note, too sharp and crunchy.
The other night, I had a half-bag of dried orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta that holds sauce so well, a few strips of fatty bacon, a yellow onion, some parsley, a half-squeezed lemon, and a bunch of rapini, also called broccoli raab. I chopped the bacon and cut the onion in slices and started them, on a low heat, together. Thirty minutes later, the onion and bacon had made a wonderful fond on the bottom of a small rondo, and I was ready to finish the dish. I started the pasta in boiling water, and 10 minutes later, I added the rough-chopped rapini to the pasta and water, so that they would finish up together. In the rondo, I set the flame to medium high and poured some hard apple cider over the onions and bacon, scrapping up all the delicious brown bits, squeezed in some lemon juice, a spoon of Dijon mustard, tossed in the minced parsley, and then, using a spider, just transferred the pasta and rapini, dripping a bit of nice pasta water, into the rondo, and stirred them up together until the water evaporated, and the sauce was evenly distributed.
On to the plates it went, dusted with cracked black pepper and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese.