Monday, February 06, 2012

Caramelized Onion & Ricotta, Black Peppercorn Dip

I've always preached the gospel that ingredient is King.  And I do believe that purveying the best you can find; be it a perfectly ripe pear, San Marzano canned tomatoes, fresh herbs from your windowsill or a well marbled steak, is the best investment toward successful cooking you can make.  But here's an instance when a well done technique can make kitchen alchemy.

I love it best when something amazingly simple can have such a profound effect.  And there's absolutely nothing complicated or difficult about caramelizing onions.  Nothing difficult that is unless patience is not among your virtues.  Because caramelizing onions could be the poster child for the slow food movement.  The upside to the low and slow style of caramelizing onions is that they require an equally low level of attention as they are doing their thing.  So the cook can go on with other business as they are doing their thing on a back burner.  And the rewards for your patience are as deep and wide as the possible uses for this "kitchen gold".

There are plenty of foodies out there espousing the various gustatory benefits of any number of flavor enhancers.  We've all correctly learned that "salt is a flavor magnet", and that a squeeze of fresh citrus can "wake up" everything from vinaigrettes to grilled pork.  But some ingredient enthusiasm can be overwhelming. Last year's "Bacon Makes It Better" overkill was responsible for re-imagining everything from peanut brittle to tofu into cholesterol bombs.  And of course there's one celebrity kitchen diva currently battling back from her butter-centric behavior. For the record ... that bacon brittle is addictively delicious and my fridge is never butter free either Ms. Dean.... BUT I can offer caramelized onions as a remarkable flavor booster that remains pretty much cringe free.

And to prove my case I plan on bringing you several posts featuring some of Big Mary's favorite uses for Caramelized Onions.  Today's being a spectacularly delicious and simple spread or dip for crostini or pita toasts.  Fresh Ricotta with Caramelized Onions and Black Pepper.  But 1st a quick "How To" for making Caramelized Onions.

Caramelized Onions
1 1/4 pounds Yellow, White or Sweet Onions (approximately 4 cups when sliced)
2 Tablespoons Olive or Vegetable Oil
1 pinch of salt
1 glass of Chardonnay (optional) 
2 Tablespoons Water

Clean and peel onions.  Slice onions in half from top to root end.  Slice thinly. (I prefer to slice them into half rings.)
Heat a large skillet, at least 10 - 12 inches diameter, over medium high heat. When heated add oil - (Measure It!.  You'll always overestimate what a Tablespoon is...) Then add sliced onions and mix well in the skillet.  Keep sauteing the onions and stirring them for a few minutes.  Add salt. When onions have collapsed and begun to turn translucent, lower heat to medium-low and pour yourself the glass of the Chardonnay if using.  Now relax!  Enjoy the wine and come back to give the onions a stir from time to time, every 3 or 4 minutes. 
I can't say for sure how long it will take as it depends on water content of your onions, how high your flame is and how efficient of a pan you are using.  But let's say a minimum of 20 minutes and perhaps as much as 30.
At first you'll notice the onions turning a little golden here and there,  then they will all take on a blond hue, then light brown, then tan and finally deep brown.  And with each step the volume will shrink and shrink.  One recipe I consulted advised to caramelize the onions until they are as brown as you think they should be, then give them 5 minutes more.  Probably good advice for the beginning onionista!  That said, for some recipes you won't need to take them as far as I'm telling you to here.
When the onions are deep brown, raise heat and stir in a tablespoon or two of water and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze the fond (brown sticky stuff on the bottom of the pan) which has great flavor and then turn off heat once water has evaporated. Remove from pan, cool and cherish.  You should have about 1/2 cup of finished product.  Again this will vary based on the onions you begin with.

And now, here's the first of my suggested uses for you caramelized onions...

Fresh Ricotta with Caramelized Onions and Cracked Black Pepper

2 Cups  Full Fat Ricotta (best quality you can find or make your own!)
1/2 cup Caramelized Onions, roughly chopped
1 very generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil - the best you have
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon roughly cracked fresh black pepper (or more to taste)
2 teaspoons parsley chopped
Country bread sliced and toasted with Olive Oil

Combine Ricotta, onions, nutmeg, EV Olive oil, salt and pepper.  Place in a bowl and garnish with parsley if desired.  Serve with crostini or pita toasts.

Copyright © 2012 Big Mary's Kitchen
Text by Edward Magel
Photos by Edward Magel & Yder Laya

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