Most of the savory dishes I cook-whether they feature meat, poultry, fish, beans, grains, or other vegetables-start with a sliced or chopped onion softened in olive oil, butter, or other fat. You might not notice onion's flavor in a finished soup, pilaf, or braise, but you would definitely miss it if it weren't there.
What to Look For When Buying OnionsLuckily, onions are cheap, available at every grocery store in the country, and long lasting. Buy them by the bagful, or at least several at a time; so long as they're firm, tightly wrapped in their papery skin, and relatively odor-free (a strong, slightly off oniony smell usually indicates damage), they'll likely keep for weeks. You can store onions either in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark, dry area; if they're stored somewhere warm, they might start sprouting.
Peeling and Chopping OnionsTo prepare onions for cooking (or eating raw), first cut off the stem end-the hairy, sometimes dirty base of the bulb-then make a shallow cut through the skin. Pull off the skin and the top layer of flesh together, then slice or chop what remains as you like. If you're using a lot of onions at once, you can make prep easier for yourself by dropping them whole into boiling water for half a minute and then rinsing them in cool water; their skin will slip right off. You might also consider slicing or chopping in a food processor, which gets the job done faster (and with less eye burning) than cutting by hand.
Cooking OnionsOften I caramelize onions before adding them to other dishes. Caramelizing onions isn't as complicated as it sounds; it requires a lot of time but very little effort. First you cook sliced onions in a dry, covered pan until they dry out and begin to stick, then you add oil or butter-at least enough to keep them from sticking to the pan, more if you like, for flavor-and cook over medium-low heat for a very long time. If you cook them for 20 minutes, they'll be fairly soft but still oniony tasting; if you cook them for over an hour, they'll be jam-like and hardly recognizable as onions. (It's not really possible to cook caramelized onions too long, provided that you keep the heat low and stir them every now and then to keep them from burning.) Caramelized onions form the sauce of Risotto-Style Pasta with Onions and Gorgonzola, and they infuse every bite of pasta with mellow sweetness. They're also great on sandwiches, pizza, and omelets.
Using Raw OnionSometimes I want the flavor of raw onions: sharp, acidic, and brash. Raw onions have such a strong flavor that they're better suited as a condiment than as a main dish or side, and no recipe plays up raw onion's potency like a traditional Indian chutney that marinates onions in vinegar with salt and spices. (Chaat masala is a spice blend based on powdered dried mangoes; you can find it in Indian markets and some grocery stores.) The chutney keeps for a couple of days in the refrigerator and can be used to enliven any meat, bean, or grain dish.
Risotto-Style Pasta with Onions and Gorgonzola
Raw Onion Chutney