12/28/2011 11:12 am ET | Updated Feb 27, 2012

Onions in a Starring Role

Of all the vegetables in the produce aisle, the onion is certainly the most patient but least understood. Months after more delicate offerings have perished on the vines, weeks after even the hardiest greens succumb to frosty weather, onions lie in wait. Even under a light blanket of snow, they wait to be discovered, like pungent little jewels hidden deep in the earth. Harvested just before the ground freezes solid, they sit patiently -- often for months -- placidly waiting in storage bins. And then, to be cast into the role of supporting player or a mere addition to mirapoix: maybe it's just karma that onions make us shed a few tears.

But don't be sad if your onion makes you cry; cutting into one breaks cell walls in the plant, releasing sulfur compounds that sting your eyes and stimulate the flow of tears. In the true fashion of a double-edged sword, those irritating compounds also protect against cancer, heart disease and inflammation. If you are especially sensitive, freeze them for 10 to 15 minutes before slicing, to slow the release of those volatile compounds. Then make friends again, with these recipes that cast onions in their rightful starring role.

Caramelized Onion and Potato Soup with Truffled Croutons
Serves 6

This soup is extremely easy, but requires a little time to fully caramelize the onions; don't hurry this step, or you'll miss the deep, rich flavors. Make a salad, prepare the croutons and set the table while the onions caramelize. Use a hand-held immersion blender for pureeing the soup to control the smoothness (leave just a little texture). You can make this soup as a vegan dish; substitute olive oil for the butter, use vegetable stock, and skip the cream at the end. The soup is so rich and flavorful, you don't have to use cream; it's really just gilding the lily, but there's no crime in that either.

2 tablespoons butter (substitute olive oil)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup white wine (substitute 1/2 cup stock)
5 to 6 cups homemade or high-quality chicken or vegetable stock
1 celery stalk, chopped small
3 large Yukon Gold or red potatoes, chopped
Several sprigs of thyme
1/2 cup cream
Truffle oil
1/3 baguette, thinly sliced crosswise
Chopped fresh chives (optional)

1. Heat butter and olive oil in a large soup pot. Add onions and cook over medium-low heat for 35 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden-brown caramelized.

2. Add wine or stock and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Add 5 cups stock, celery, potatoes and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partly covered, about 25 minutes until potatoes are soft. Remove and dispose of thyme sprig, then puree soup until thick and creamy but not completely smooth. Add remaining stock if needed to thin, and add cream if desired. Season with sea salt and white pepper.

3. While potatoes are cooking, preheat oven to 400. Arrange baguette slices on a baking pan and drizzle with truffle oil. Sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper and bake until light golden, 10 to 15 minutes.

4. To serve, divide soup between individual cups or bowls, sprinkle with chives, and float 2 or 3 croutons on top. Serve immediately.

Roasted Stuffed Onions with Fiery Rouille
Serves 6

This is such a nice way to use day-old or slightly stale bread, but you can also substitute brown rice, buckwheat, barley or quinoa. It's also an original dish for parties and appetizers; double the recipe, and do some pre-prep: the day before cooking, hollow the onions and store in an air-tight Pyrex container in the refrigerator. Make the filling in advance, too, then stuff the onions just before roasting.

4 small red onions
4 small yellow onions
2 cups cooked buckwheat, quinoa or brown rice
1/2 cup homemade or high-quality stock
1 large egg
¼ pound crimini mushrooms, chopped
2 cups baby spinach leaves, chopped small
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon each sea salt and pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
Grated Asiago cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2. Cut a 1/2-inch slice from the top of each onion. Trim a little bit off the bottom, just enough to make the bottom flat. Using a melon baller, scoop out the center of the onion and chop it up. Set aside. Drop the onion shells into a pot of salted boiling water, and cook for 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain and set aside.

3. Chop enough of the reserved onion to make 1 cup (save the rest for adding to soups and stews). Heat oil in a large skillet and fry mushrooms and onions for 5 minutes, until onion is golden. Remove from heat and combine in a bowl with remaining ingredients. Arrange in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 400 for 25 minutes, until tender. Remove from oven and serve with Fiery Rouille on the side.

Fiery Rouille
Makes 1 cup

Large pinch of saffron threads (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 large piece of rustic or gluten-free bread, toasted deep brown
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne*
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced parsley

1. Combine saffron and 3 tablespoons of boiling water in a small bowl, and let stand for 10 minutes.

2. Process bread in a food processor, to make small crumbs. Add to saffron water and let stand for 5 minutes; the mixture should be thick and pasty, but not dry; add an additional spoonful of water, or as needed.

3. While the bread is soaking, combine garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle, and mash into a thick paste. Add red pepper flakes or cayenne, and mash together until smooth.

4. Add bread crumb paste to garlic mixture, and mash together until smooth. Mash and stir in olive oil, adding the oil in a slow, steady stream. Stir in parsley and adjust salt. Store in a glass jar, refrigerated, for up to 1 week.