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
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.
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.