Raise your hand if you love the idea of creamed onions at Thanksgiving but find yourself disappointed by the reality of them...
I thought so. A certain amnesia always inspires me to put them on the menu, but I always end up leaving them uneaten on my plate. And I'm not alone. They seem to be the one item that routinely gets scraped from plate to compost, and the plastic tub of leftovers ends up growing a fascinating culture at the back of the fridge. Not so surprising, really. I mean, come on: boiled onions, butter, flour, milk, salt, pepper – a little nutmeg, if you're lucky. Sounds like a perfect definition of bland.
The last time I hosted Thanksgiving dinner, I tried a new approach to creamed onions. They were all eaten, and I'm quite certain the bowl was licked clean (and not by the dog). The key difference lies in roasting the onions.
Think about it: boil the onions, and most of the flavor leaches out; roast them, and the flavor is concentrated – rich, mellow, and sweet. Then give them a sauce with some substance. Replace the milk in your bechamel with wine, stock, and cream, add bay leaf and thyme, and finish it with cheese. Bland and forgettable becomes bold and delicious.
Start with 2 lbs. of whole white boiling onions (this will make about a quart of creamed onions, plenty for a crowd of 10 or 12). They can be a drag to peel, but this should help: put the onions in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. After a minute, drain off the water. This softens the papery skin and keeps it from splitting and shattering while you're trying to remove it.
Using a sharp paring knife, trim off the root end of the onion, leaving a little of the hard pad intact. It will soften as it cooks, and it will keep the onion from slipping apart. Starting at the root end, peel away the outer layer of skin, then trim the tip.
Put the peeled onions in a roasting pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them at 350°F for about an hour, until they're soft and nicely caramelized (stir, toss, or jiggle them every 20 minutes to keep them from sticking and to spread the color around).
NOTE (added 11/28/09): This year I decided to slow-brown the onions in a large skillet on the stove. And I think this may be a better approach – the onions didn't get quite as dark, and the finished dish was a more appealing pale caramel color. The onions took about 45 minutes on medium-low to medium heat, cooked in butter rather than oil.
While the onions are roasting, make the sauce. In a small saucepan, reduce 1/4 cup of white wine by about half. Add 1/2 cup of chicken broth, 1 cup of heavy cream, half a small onion studded with 2 whole cloves, 1/4 of a bay leaf, and a sprig of fresh thyme. Bring this just to a simmer, then turn off the heat and let steep for 10 or 15 minutes.
In another, slightly larger saucepan, proceed as for a basic bechamel, with 2 TBSP butter and 2 TBSP flour, substituting the steeped liquid (with the onion and herbs removed) for the milk. Once the sauce is thickened, whisk in 1/2 a cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese. Season the sauce very sparingly with salt (the cheese will have made it somewhat salty already) and a grating of nutmeg. Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the onions into the sauce and stir gently to blend.
You can make the onions a day or two ahead and hold them in the refrigerator.
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My sister Vanessa e-mailed me a few days ago to ask if I'd be preparing an elaborate Thanksgiving feast and then posting about it on my blog. Well...no. There will be 12 of us for dinner here tomorrow, but I don't know that I'd describe the planned feast as elaborate so much as happily traditional: brined, roasted turkey with giblet gravy and cornbread/pancetta/pecan stuffing, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, sautéed Brussels sprouts with garlic and pancetta, roasted sweet potatoes, creamed onions, raw cranberry relish with oranges and walnuts, cooked cranberry chutney with raisins and cayenne. I'll take some pictures, but I don't expect to be posting about it.
I've taken some dessert detours over the years, settling on pumpkin cheesecake as the standard, although last year I made a chocolate-chestnut roulade that was well received. A few weeks ago, we had a Thanksgiving strategy session with my stepdaughters. In our annual rotation of Thanksgiving/Christmas On/Off with the kids, this year is Thanksgiving On, and we wanted them to have input on the menu, and the only part of that they cared to dictate was dessert. Dad's apple pie, of course, and pumpkin pie, too. And maybe pecan.
That's when I realized that Thanksgiving is a Pie Holiday, and not to be messed with. Save the flights of fancy for Christmas, New Year's, and birthdays...Thanksgiving is all about the pie. So we'll have apple, pumpkin, and pecan – and something new: buttermilk pie. I'm a regular rider on the homemade butter bandwagon, the happy byproduct of which is copious amounts of the most wonderful buttermilk. So when I saw a recipe for cardamom-buttermilk pie in Saveur, I knew it had to join the lineup. I know that's a mighty lot of pie, but one must have leftovers – Friday will be an officially designated Pie-For-Breakfast (∏4B) Day.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, whomever you spend it with. The creamed onions are my gift to you. Just don't expect there to be any leftovers.