Where would we be without onions, I ask you? The onion and other members of the allium family provide the flavor base for practically every savory dish in the Italian repertoire. Countless dishes begin with the preparation of a soffritto which, almost always, includes onion. In fact, although it might come as a surprise, I dare say the onion is probably more essential than garlic in Italian cooking.
The onion usually plays a supporting role but once in a while it gets to be a star. Like a bass violin, it hardly ever gets a solo, but when it does, it really makes an impression. Perhaps the most popular Italian onion dish is cipolline in agrocdolce, baby onions braised with a sweet and sour sauce, which we have already featured. Here’s another way to make them, this time using full-sized onions, preferably the fresh kind known to Italians as cipolle novelle. These intensely sweet but delicately flavored onions are simply seasoned with salt, pepper and parsley, drizzled with some fruity olive oil, and baked gently in the oven until they are soft and sweet and every so slightly caramelized.
Onions made this way are a perfect accompaniment to roasted or grilled meats, but are so tasty you could make a vegetarian main course out of them.
Serves 4 people as a side course
- 4 onions, preferably fresh
- Salt and pepper
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Best quality, fruity olive oil
- Dry white wine (optional)
Fresh onions are quite different looking from the usual dried variety that you normally find in the supermaket. They look a bit like giant scallions, but with a more bulbous base, which is your onion.
Young fresh onions don’t generally need peeling since they have not yet formed a papery skin like the usual dried variety, but they need trimming top and bottom to remove stalk and root ends. Then cut the onions in half across their midsection, against the grain so to speak, so their rings are exposed.
Place the onion halves in a well-oiled baking dish, cut side up. Season very generously with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with the parsley. Finally, drizzled the onion halves with best quality olive oil. (See picture above.)
Place the baking dish in a moderate oven (180C/350F) for an hour or more, until the onions are well reduced in size, very soft and slightly caramelized. Baste the onions with their cooking juices every so often as they cook. Be careful not to allow the onions to burn, which will give them a bitter taste. I like the cover them with a sheet of wax paper for the first 30 minutes or so. If need be, you can lower the oven temperature.
One little personal touch: about 5 minutes before they’re done, I like to splash a bit of white wine on top of the onions. This gives the onions a very slight tang, which nicely balances their natural sweetness, and produces a little ‘sauce’ (sughetto) you can pour over the onions when you serve. them.
Let the onions cool slightly before serving.
Fresh onions are best for this recipe and I was delighted to find some fresh Vidalia onions in the market this week (in early February!) The sweet flavor of these onions made this way was truly something special. But the dish will work just fine with regular dried onions you can always find; just parboil them for about 5 minutes after you’ve trimmed and peeled them, then proceed with the recipe.
Personally, I like the pure onion flavor that this very simple preparation provides, but some recipes for cipolle al forno call for sprinkling breadcrumbs on top as well, which makes for a nice change, and you could mix the breadcrumbs with some grated Parmesan cheese as well if you like.
- Cipolline in agrodolce (Sweet-and-Sour Braised Baby Onions)