Know your onions

Onions are the everyday ingredient we can't do without, used in the most simple and sophisticated dishes.

The two broad types are mature and immature. Mature onions include brown, white, red, and small, brown eschalots.

Onion names can cause confusion. Red onions are often called Spanish onions, which are in fact yellow.

Immature onions still have their green stems and are sold in bunches. Green onions have long, slender stems. Frequently used in Asian cooking, they are also known as scallions and spring onions. The true spring onion has a more pronounced bulb and is great in salads. Look out for them in spring for their delicate flavour.

Here are some tips to help avoid the eye-watering effects of chopping onions:

Young onions are not as pungent as old ones, so buy them where there is frequent turnover.

Use a really sharp knife. I cut my onions in half lengthways, with the skin still on, then pull back the skin to make a handle to grip. I do two slices through horizontally, then three or four vertically through the length, and finish with a quick chop across for a fine dice.

Placing onions in the fridge can also help by cooling down the volatile naturally occurring chemicals. Wearing glasses or contact lenses helps, too. If all else fails, strap on swimming goggles to slice large quantities.

Once cooked, onions are sweet and mellow, adding warmth and body to soups, stews, roasts and casseroles. Try one of these recipes and let onions be the star of the your next meal.

Baked eschalots with raisins, balsamic and goat's feta

Peel eschalots in no time with this simple tip: a dip in hot water loosens the skins.

30 eschalots
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Few sprigs thyme
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp water
1/4 cup raisins
2 tbsp brown sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g soft goat's feta to serve

Preheat fan-forced oven to 190C. Bring a kettle to the boil. Place eschalots in a large heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over them. After a minute or so, carefully remove eschalots and peel off skins. Drizzle oil in a baking dish, scatter over garlic and place eschalots on top. Throw in thyme sprigs, drizzle with balsamic and water. Tuck in raisins and finish with brown sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes, stirring once or twice, until eschalots are deeply burnished and sticky. Remove from oven and serve at the table with salt and pepper to season and a generous dollop of feta.

Serves 4

French lentil and onion soup

CAPTION

Add some French lentils to a traditional onion soup for texture and finish off with zesty lemon and mint.

4 tbsp butter
4 medium brown onions, peeled and finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1.2 litres vegetable stock, plus extra if required
250g (1 1/4 cups) puy lentils, washed
Handful fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1 lemon, zest and juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 small French baguette, thickly sliced
150g gruyere cheese, grated

Heat a large heavy-based pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Add sliced onions and cook for 20 minutes until well softened and golden. Add garlic and cook for a few more minutes until garlic is soft and translucent. Add stock and bring to a simmer. Add lentils and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes or so, until the lentils are tender but still holding their shape.

Remove from heat and stir in parsley, lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper and finish with fresh mint to taste. If the soup is too thick, add a little extra stock or water. To make the cheese croutons, grill the bread on one side, turn and sprinkle with cheese. Grill until cheese melts and turns golden. Ladle soup into bowls and serve immediately with grilled cheese croutons.

Serves 4

Onion jam

CAPTION

This unusual jam is always a best-seller at the local primary school fair. It's perfect with cheese or dolloped on sausages.

1kg (8-10) medium brown onions
2 tbsp olive oil
1kg sugar
70g mustard seeds
375ml bottle red wine vinegar
285ml bottle sweet chilli sauce

Peel onions, cut in half and slice thinly. Place a large heavy-based pot over medium heat, add oil and cook onions until softened. Add sugar and mix until dissolved. Add mustard seeds, vinegar and sweet chilli sauce. Increase heat to high and cook until reduced and thickened, about 30 minutes. Pour into sterilised jars, wipe the inside rim with vinegar and seal.

Makes about 6x250ml jars

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