2011 April: I CRY FOR YOU

While there are many varieties of onions, the four types most commonly used in just about every restaurant are: yellow, Spanish, red and scallions (also know as green onions). When we get into fine-dining restaurants, however, the usage expands to include more exotic onions such as Maui sweet, Vidalia, Walla Walla, cippoline, pearl, shallots and torpedo onions. Somewhere along the way, depending on the style of your menu, you might want to add one of the exotic onions to your repertoire. For example, cippoline onions are a
traditional Italian variety that is firm and juicy. It’s ideal for soups, stews and casseroles.

Those who know my cooking style will recall that I advocate sautéing vegetables in olive oil and/or butter to develop their flavor. For onions, this is a must. When prepping onions for use as a pizza topping, I also suggest either sweating or caramelizing them.

Sweating — gently cooking — is a common technique, and it accomplishes several things. For starters, it softens the texture, increases sweetness and reduces sulfur content (which makes it milder). I suggest sweating onions for dishes such as rosotti, pasta sauce and pizza.

Do this by first slicing or chopping a yellow onion. Add just enough oil or butter to cover the bottom of a deep sauté pan. If you use too much fat, you’ll smother the onions.

Sauté and stir over medium heat until the onions are soft.

If you decide to caramelize, you’ll achieve a unique flavor. Once an onion’s sugars have caramelized, a variety of sweet, rich flavors develop that add depth to any dish. I recommend caramelizing onions for use on sandwiches, hamburgers, roasted meats or as a pizza topping.
To caramelize for a pizza topping, start by heating one tablespoon of vegetable oil and one tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch non-stick fry pan set over medium heat. When the oil and butter are heated and the foaming stops, add 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt and 3⁄4 teaspoon of light brown sugar. Quickly stir to mix. Add about 1 cup of chopped yellow onion. Cook over high heat for approximately five minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions will begin to soften and release some of their juices.

Cook until onions are soft, have a glossy look, and are a deep, rich brown color. This may take 20 to 30 minutes. Do not rush this process, or the result will not produce onions with the varying layers of color and rich flavor. When the onions are done, remove from the heat and stir in a tablespoon of water. Add pepper to taste.

To use these onions on a pizza, brush the pizza shell with olive oil. Layer on the onions evenly over the crust. Top the onions with shredded mozzarella or Asiago cheese. Bake. Garnish with chopped parsley or snipped basil just before sending the pizza to the table.

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

TIP: If you want to reduce the harshness of an onion for a lighter dish, place sliced or chopped onions in a bowl of ice water. Soak for 90 minutes, changing the water every 30 minutes.

Onion and Mushroom Pizza

Yield: 1 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
1 14-inch pizza shell
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups coarse chopped sweet yellow onion
1 ½ cups sliced white mushrooms
½ cup pitted Kalamata or other oil-cured black olives, chopped
8 ounces shredded mozzarella
Fresh basil or parsley

In a sauté pan set over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil for 1 minute.

Add the onion and the mushrooms to the pan. Sauté and stir for about 8 minutes or until the onions soften. Drain excess moisture. Set aside. Brush the pizza shell with olive oil.

Top the pizza with the onion/mushroom mixture followed by the chopped olives. Sprinkle on the shredded mozzarella. Bake.

Garnish with clips of fresh basil leaves or parsley before sending out.

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