Onions are everywhere in Italian cooking. They form part of the flavor base for just about every savory dish you can think of but, besides that, they make for a perfect contorno because they go with just about anything. The most common onion side dish is no doubt cipolline in agrodolce, cipollini onions braised in a sweet-and-sour sauce, but they are also wonderful made in umido, or stewed in tomato sauce. The dish incredibly easy to make, very tasty and goes beautifully with roasted or grilled meats in particular.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
- 500g (16 oz.) cipollini onions (see Notes), trimmed and peeled
- 350ml (12 fluid oz.) passata di pomodoro or canned tomatoes passed through a food mill, plus enough water to cover the onions
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- A pinch of sugar (optional)
Cover the bottom of a pan large enough to hold all the onions in one layer with olive oil. Add the onions and roll them around so they are all covered with the oil. Add the passata di pomodoro and enough water, if needed, to just barely cover the onions. Season generously with salt and pepper (and, if using the sugar).
Bring the onions to a simmer over moderate heat, cover and then lower the heat. Let the onions braise for 20-30 minutes or so, until the onions are perfectly tender and the tomato sauce is well reduced. (The oil should have visibly separated from the tomato and the sauce should cling to the onions.) If the onions are done before the sauce has sufficiently reduced, uncover the pot and increase the flame until you’ve reached the consistency you want.
The onions can be served immediately or made entirely ahead and reheated when you want them.
Cipollini onions are the somewhat squat, ‘button’ shaped baby onions:
But if you can’t find them, regular old baby or ‘pearl’ onions will do fine. Frozen pearl onions lend themselves to this treatment very nicely as well. In Spring, fresh onions are very nice this way; if they are large, you could split them into wedges, making sure that each wedge has a bit of root end on it to keep them together. Even yellow onions will work, although I would definitely use a pinch of sugar in that case to help bring out the cipollini onions’ natural sweetness and, of course, you’ll need to increase the cooking time a bit.
There are variations on this dish, adding some vinegar for tartness or even pancetta for extra savoriness, but I much prefer the very basic, ‘elemental’ recipe.