Eating with our noses: Fragrant caramelized onions star in a rustic pasta dish

by Terry B on January 21, 2009

Caramelized onions, grape tomatoes, fresh Parmesan cheese and olive oil are the only ingredients besides pasta in a hearty vegetarian meal. Recipe below.

A quick note: It appears to be all onion week at Blue Kitchen. Right below this post, you’ll find a recipe for a Sherry Dijon Vinaigrette that makes the most of the onion’s more refined cousin, the shallot.

Much has been said, including here, about how we “eat with our eyes.” That’s why we work so hard on presentation, isn’t it, arranging everything just so on the plate, maybe even giving plate rims a quick little wipe with a cloth before putting them on the table if we’re in total restaurant mode at home?

Well, we also eat with our noses. I thought about this recently as I smelled one of the coolest food smells I know. I was walking down the street and got a whiff of lots of onions cooking. It was wafting from some restaurant on a busy street, early enough in the morning that they were being cooked as part of some dish that would be served later in the day.

I love that smell. Partly, I’m sure, it’s the promise of something delicious to come. But more than that, it’s a vicarious olfactory glimpse into the world of professional cooking. It’s the same reason I like eating at the counter at Heaven on Seven here in Chicago, watching the line cooks in the open kitchen tending multiple pans and efficiently plating orders, all while seemingly effortlessly avoiding collisions with one another and waitstaff. It’s the same reason we watch the pros cook on TV—for that peek behind the curtain.

That morning, the sharp/sweet smell got me thinking about giving onions a starring role in some dish. Pasta seemed like a natural choice. Casting about for something else to add to the mix, I remembered seeing a gorgeous picture somewhere of sautéed grape or cherry tomatoes tossed with pasta. Throw in some olive oil and fresh Parmesan and I knew my ingredient list was done.

Onions—sautéed, fried or grilled—are a fundamental ingredient, the first step in countless dishes. Cooking them over low heat for a long time—half an hour or so—caramelizes the sugars in onions, turning them a rich brown and bringing out their natural sweetness. You can caramelize any kind of onion, but yellow onions actually contain more sugar than so-called sweet onions and caramelize beautifully.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Grape Tomatoes
Serves 2

2 medium-sized yellow onions [3-1/2 to 4 cups after slicing]
1/4 cup olive oil [plus extra, if needed]
24 grape tomatoes [or 18 to 20 cherry tomatoes], halved
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
freshly grated, good quality Parmesan cheese [see Kitchen Notes]

6 ounces uncooked linguine fini [or spaghetti or other long pasta]

Trim onions top and bottom and slice in half lengthwise. Remove skins and slice halves crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Separate rings by hand.

Caramelize onions. Heat oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium-low flame until it shimmers. Add onions and toss to thoroughly coat with oil. Don’t worry if onions are crowding the pan—they will cook down considerably. Cook onions slowly, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes to avoid burning, for about 15 minutes. Keep an eye [and nose] on the onions. If they start to burn, reduce heat further—low heat and patience are key when caramelizing onions.

Continue cooking the onions another 10 to 15 minutes. Stir more frequently during this final phase, keeping the heat low and watching for burning. When onions are 3 or so minutes from doneness, stir in the halved grape or cherry tomatoes. If necessary, drizzle in a little more oil. As you stir onions, be sure to turn tomatoes so they warm through. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain cooked pasta and drizzle just a bit of olive oil on pasta in collander and toss gently with tongs; this will keep it from clumping together. Divide pasta between two serving plates. Spoon onion/tomato mixture over pasta and top with grated Parmesan. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Fresh Parmesan, please. I don’t often speak in absolutes here—I’m the king of “if you don’t have X, use a little Y instead.” But don’t use pre-grated Parmesan, not in the familiar green can, not in the supposedly fresher refrigerator case containers. Buy a hunk of Parmesan cheese in the dairy case. It keeps practically forever [if it gets a little mold on it, slice it off—the rest is still fine], and a smallish hunk will produce a surprising amount of grated cheese. If you can spend a little extra for imported Italian, it’ll taste even better, but anything is more flavorful than the pre-grated stuff.

Speaking of Parmesan, you may have noticed that I didn’t add any for the photo. I just loved the brightness of the red tomatoes. If you do too, grate the parmesan and pass it at the table for people to add their own. For that matter, without the cheese, this makes a great vegan meal.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Randi January 21, 2009 at 3:23 am

Oh my…this has me written all over it. Guess what I’m making this weekend.
What is your opinion of caramelizing onions with a little bit of sugar?
Speaking of enticing smells, my husband has a coffee truck business and one of their “tricks” is to quarter an onion, wrap it in foil and leave it in the oven for the day. It always smells good and makes people hungry.
(We had your pork tenderloin with tarragon mustard sauce for dinner. Wow! So much flavour. All plates were scraped clean)

Rita January 21, 2009 at 4:57 am

That is a great dish, I normally make it with black olives, never made it with fresh tomatoes.

Regina Moriarty January 21, 2009 at 2:19 pm

This looks fantastic! I am in a very carmelized onion phase right now, had them last night with roasted butternut squash and blue cheese. Yum!

Laura January 21, 2009 at 2:37 pm

The onion is a truly great vegetable. I’m not sure how it would be with grape tomatoes added, but caramelized onions mixed with greek yogurt (or I bet sheep or goat milk yogurt would also be amazing) is just delicious over pasta.

Carolyn January 21, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Someone on a food show told a story about his cab driver. “Every Tuesday night my wife makes my favorite pasta,” the cabbie said. “When I walk into the house I smell the olives and onions cooking, and I fall in love all over again.” Caramelized onions are the smell of love, aren’t they? (grin). I know there must be a good reason for it, but each time a foodie advises to “cook the onions until translucent,” I shake my head at the wasted opportunity. “Cook ‘em until they’re brown and smell like love,” I want to yell.

Terry B January 21, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Randi—What a great trick! Kind of like baking something just before an open house when you’re trying to sell a house to make it seem more homey. Regarding adding a little sugar when you caramelize onions, some recipes do call for that, but I like just letting the natural sugars in the onions do the job.

Rita—The onions sound like a great combo with the onions too. And a popular one—see Carolyn’s note below.

Thanks, Regina! Blue cheese, eh? Now I just want to start caramelizing more onions, to try those flavors together.

Laura—Or a little goat cheese! The tomatoes were actually a great match for the onions; they added a nice, tart brightness to the dish.

Carolyn—Once again, a great story. Yeah, caramelized onions are wonderful and fragrant, but sometimes, you want the slightly sharper, stronger bite of onions just cooked ’til translucent.

altadenahiker January 21, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Excuse me, but this little girl has a date with her rude Italian grocer. Presto. Pronto. Now.

Melissa January 22, 2009 at 2:01 am

What a great simple pasta. Using a really nice olive oil will add to the flavor, too.
I LOVE LOVE LOVE caramelized onions. It is one of our favorite ingredients at the cafe. We have to be careful not to overuse them. We always have a few pans of them going. We actually add a little water to the pan when they start to get dry, stir them up with the browned bits, and keep caramelizing. The water evaporates and makes them nice and moist. Not sure if that only works with huge amounts though. You’re right, no sugar is needed. And don’t be afraid to get them really really brown, more flavor. If you are making them, might as well make a lot. They keep well in the fridge. You can also make a compote out of them. Roasted eggplant, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and capers or olives for brightness, great for either a panini or pasta.

Laura January 22, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Terry – I have no doubt that the tomatoes were great! I was more wondering how they would be with the addition of the yogurt. But now that I think about it, I spent a week in Turkey eating virtually nothing but tomatoes and yogurt for breakfast everyday and it was amazing, so I see no reason that couldn’t be carried through to a pasta dish.

Terry B January 22, 2009 at 4:43 pm

altadenahiker, you crack me up. Seriously.

Hi, Melissa! Everybody, Melissa is co-owner of Vella Cafe, whose praises I sang here last week. Melissa, I think the water trick only works with big batches of onions. Otherwise, it either immediately evaporates or else you add so much you end up steaming them. That said, my almost four cups of sliced onions cooked waaaay down. Next time, I think I’ll start with more and save some for later, as you suggest.

Laura—I think yogurt might make a nice, creamy/tangy addition to the onions and tomatoes in this dish and give you some satisfying protein. I’d leave out the Parmesan if I added yogurt, though.

Olga January 22, 2009 at 7:22 pm

This looks so simple and delicious. I think I might have added some pine nuts.

Carrie January 23, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Terry B. Caramelized onions – even my teenaged daughters walk in the house and exclaim how fabulous the house smells, what’s for dinner. If you haven’t tried it already, Marcella Hazen’s recipe for pasta with smothered onions is one of the best foods in this world. It is better with really great quality pasta (not the enriched stuff) and cheese (really good parmigiano reggiano) but it’s an incredibly forgiving recipe, it always tastes great. Per your recipe and the comments above, I do think it’s time to experiment with adding roasted tomatoes and/or blue cheese.

diva January 24, 2009 at 11:24 pm

i love the smell of frying garlic and right after that is the smell of onions! :) cannot agree more, we definitely eat with our noses too. beautiful plate of pasta. simple food is so good.

katrina January 26, 2009 at 1:21 am

Simply beautiful. (and my dinner tomorrow)…..

Ceka February 7, 2009 at 2:56 am

My mother always starts by sauteing onions and garlic. From there, you can make anything, really.

Brad September 5, 2010 at 7:32 am

This is awesome. I made this exact meal tonight, only with some yellow squash as well, for a bit of crunch. I cooked my onions closer to an hour, till they were almost black. I did add a bit of sugar though, since they weren’t quite as sweet as i imagined.
I found this article because I was searching for a similar recipe, to see if there was some magic chef trick to put the dish over the top. Got anything?

Terry B September 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Brad—First, I’m really glad you liked it! Second, if you’re looking for an extra bit of sweetness, you might consider dicing up an apple or even a pear and cooking it with the onion. And if you’d like to add a kind of mysterious umami flavor, you might try adding several cloves of black garlic. Be generous with it—eight or so.

Lady Amalthea November 26, 2011 at 11:58 am

This sauce was great! I served it over whole grain sprouted linguine, which made for a heartier dish but still a tasty one. I also added some roasted chickpeas.

Polythene Pam February 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Typed in carmelized onions and tomatoes and here I am! Thank you for posting this simple yet incredibly flavourful recipe. I’m always on the lookout for good vegetarian pasta dishes and this one will be made over and over again. Thank you Terry B.!

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