August 1, 2014 |

The Crying Game

By John Gutekanst

chipotle onion jam pizzaOnions provide myriad of flavors, options

The most underrated and underused topping in every pizzeria is the onion. I feel very comfortable saying this because the flavor potential of this glorious root can be a bold, tear-jerking shout or a sublime succulent whisper. The onion is what the lead-off shortstop is to baseball: it shows up every game, gets on base without fail, helps the other, more heroic toppings shine … but is usually taken for granted. Most chefs and pizza owners never put the onion in a position to knock the ball out of the park but in any kitchen, flavor points are hard to come by without its use.

Supposedly, our western history points to Alexander the Great finding the onion in Egypt (where the Egyptians found it also). He brought it to Greece where it was given to the troops to “excite martial ardor.” These days, onions aren’t credited for such a thirst for killing but they continue to be boiled, sautéed, fried and smoked, stewed and roasted. Here are a few ways that history has presented this gem as pizza or pizza-variants:

  • Sfincione. This Sicilian specialty uses a low-protein dough in “Teglia” (or pan) to create a soft, well proofed dough topped with finely sliced, cooked onion, tomato, breadcrumbs, oregano, parsley and some aged pecorino.
  • Pissalidiére. This specialty hails from the French Riviera around Nice. This French pizza is argued as more of a focaccia back and forth just like the Italian version below but I’ve had it as a thin crusted wonder while there. It has gently cooked onion, olives and anchovy.
  • Coca de Cebolla con Miel. This crusty Catalonian pizza or flatbread is a sweet and sour masterpiece with pre-salted onions, honey, raisins and pine nuts.
  • Pizza all’ Andrea. Named after the Naval hero Andrea Doria, this Ligurian version of the Coca de Cebonella con Miel was invented at the end of the 15th century. Onions, anchovy and local olives. When tomatoes became popular, they also made an appearance as well as a “squacquerone”,  which is a creamy crescenza-stracchino cheese.
  • Flammkuchen. This German variant of the Alsasian “flammekueche” or “Tarte Flambee” was invented by a baker seeing if his oven was hot enough by throwing a very thin piece of dough in topped with crème fraiche, (fromage blanc), onion, bacon, nutmeg and Gruyere. So delicious, this onion pie crosses all borders with flavor!
  • Cong You Bing. “Marco!” This original Chinese yeasted scallion is a pizza that, according to legend, Marco Polo tried to re-create in Naples after his voyage. The original one that he missed so much had the scallions in the dough and was fried but his variation had the scallions on top. So much for history, “Polo!”

For years, I’ve tried to manipulate the onion into interesting ways to “tweak” my customers’ experience. I’ve used leeks, scallions, cippolini, Vadalia, red, white, yellow and even wild onions in my menu mix. If you don’t have access to these wonderful food items, here are some experiments you can try with ordinary red and yellow onions.

Pickled Red Onions

This is a simple and easy accompaniment to top a pizza with and adds a special zing to any meaty or fatty pie.

3 cups rice wine or apple cider vinegar
½ tablespoon, roasted fennel seeds
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
½ tablespoon sugar
2 medium to large red onions cut into 1/8-inch thick rings
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup fresh cilantro

Bring all ingredients (except cilantro) to a boil then immediately turn off the heat, cover and let steep until room temperature. Chop the cilantro fine and add to the mix.


Chipotle-Onion Jam

This is wonderful to top on aged cheddar, feta and even gorgonzola pizzas. Cream sauce pizzas are great with this jam.

3 tablespoons olive oil
4 large onions cut in vertically, then in half-strips 1/8-inch thick
3 chipotle peppers from a small can of chipotle in adobo (found at any grocery)
½ cup raisins
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar

In a small lexan place very hot tap water on top of the raisins and let sit for thirty minutes to rehydrate. Drain all water when plump.

Cut the chipotle peppers up fine. Add the oil, onions, sugar and peppers to a pizza pan or tray and insert it in your 475 F pizza oven for 12 minutes tossing afterwards and returning for five more minutes until the onions are soft and starting to caramelize.

Add the balsamic and raisins when hot and let steep in the pan. This mix can be ground up using an immersion blender or blender or left chunky.  (For more heat, add more chipotle. For an added sweetness, use dried blueberries instead.)

To caramelize, char or sweat?  That is the question. Of the many treatments an onion gets, the three great flavors of sweet, bitter-char and creamy are there for the taking. Caramelization occurs when the sugars from the onion reduce into a thick dark liquid. Many chefs help this by adding Balsamic vinegar or sugars. Charred onions offer a deeper, meatier flavor profile like coffee, steak and nuts. When onions are offered a low temperature atmosphere to sweat and sweat some more, the oils don’t evaporate and the fibers cook away leaving a silky cream.


Charred Onion Dip (and/or my Flammkuchen sauce)

This recipe combines the umami deepness of charred onion with cream and a touch of fennel. For the dip, sour cream is used. If you want to make the sauce for pizza, you can use mascarpone cheese. Both rock the house! (Note: the roasted red peppers are mostly for color because the char makes this dip/sauce look horribly brown. The peppers morph it into a deep golden color!)

2 large onions cut into 1/8-inch rings
1 teaspoon whole fennel seed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 cup sour cream or mascarpone cheese
1/3 cup chopped roasted red peppers
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste

Place the onion rounds in a pizza pan that has been brushed with all the oil and turn over to coat sprinkle the fennel seed on the onion to toast and release flavor.

Place the onion pan either in your conveyor or deck oven at 475 F for eight minutes until the bottom of each round is charred, and turn over. Cook another four to six minutes to char the other side and place aside to cool.

When cool, add the cheese, sour cream, roasted red peppers, salt and pepper in a large container or blender and whip with an immersion blender until creamy.

If you use this for a sauce recipe, it is particularly good using the “Flammkuchen” recipe above. I call this the “Double Onion Pie.” Just use the onion sauce, your preferred cheese and then top with thinly sliced raw red onion and bacon.

John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author and has been featured in Gastronomica, Food Arts, National Geographic, Alimentum Food Journal, Food Network and Best Food Writing, 2012.