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Cooking for One: Sauteed onions flavor many a fast entree or side dish

Thursday, April 12, 2001

Back in the dark ages when families ate together every night, I was a young wife and the mother of three boys. It was routine for me to have meal preparations well under way by 5 p.m. when my guys started showing up after work and sports, hungry and impatient for their supper.

In those days I spent lots of afternoons on the tennis court, and if the sets ran long, well, I ran late, and I was in deep do-do in the chief-cook department.

Tretorns smoking, I'd rush into the kitchen, toss an onion into the oven, turn the heat up and get cracking on the business at hand.

Within five minutes, the kitchen would smell wonderful, with roasting onion vapors wafting through the house. As the family would drift in the heady onion aroma fooled them into thinking a feast was imminent.

"Smells good, Mum. When do we eat?"

I'd stall.

"Pretty soon, kiddo. Here, have some crackers."

And once again, I was home free.

Hey, it worked. And I've been grateful for onions in any form ever since. But now I cook them for real. I usually keep a stash of sliced, sauteed onions in the fridge. It's like money in the bank, because they improve just about any savory dish.

What they improve most is pierogies. You solo cooks have an ace up your sleeve if you perfect this easy dinner.

Have on hand a box of Mrs. T's Pierogies in the freezer. (Mrs. T's are my favorite brand.) Cut 2 or 3 medium yellow onions into thin, half-moon slices, and place in a skillet with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat the onions. Turn the heat on to medium and let the onions soften and cook until they are golden, with a few brown tips here and there. Remove to a bowl and set aside, but don't wash the skillet.

Cook the whole box of pierogies (about 10) in boiling water according to directions, about 5 minutes. Lift the pierogies out with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the used skillet along with a tablespoon of butter or olive oil. Cook over medium heat until they begin to brown. Season with salt and pepper. Add back the onions and heat through. This makes enough for two meals. As a flourish, you could top them with sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

There are lots of onions out there to choose from, but it's best to stick to these three.

Yellow (the produce people call them "storage") cooking onions, the kind that come in the net bags, are workhorses of the kitchen, the most common, strongest in flavor but most likely to have you running for a Kleenex.

White (storage) onions have slightly sharper, cleaner and slightly sweeter flavor than yellows. These are the guys most often used to top Mexican dishes.

Spanish onions are a large yellow (storage) onion and as round as a baseball. Because of their high water content, they spoil quickly. They are somewhat crisp and sweet and not too strong-tasting. Spanish onions are often mistakenly called Bermudas. As far as I can figure out, there was some agricultural snit in the produce world, and the onion called Bermuda ceased production in 1985.

Remember always to cut onions with a good sharp knife. Never use a food processor. It pulls out the liquid, makes the onions acrid and makes an uneven mush to boot.

What about onion breath? You don't get it with cooked onions. Onion breath is the gift of fresh, raw onions, the raw ones that make the sentence, "Hurry, hurry, harried Harry," unpopular in a crowded room. If it ever happens to you, everybody seems to have some solution. Eat an apple, chew on parsley, chew on citrus peel, munch on a coffee bean. But why worry? I favor avoiding people who don't like the perfume of my favorite vegetable. Besides, you solo cooks don't have the problem.

There's only one thing better than sauteed onions, and that's sauteed onions cooked with sauteed mushrooms, both bathed in butter and heavily seasoned with salt and pepper. Add the mushroom-onion combo (recipe below) to these dishes for starters.

Top toast for an open-face sandwich or appetizer.

Stir into rice, or serve over mashed potatoes instead of gravy.

Spoon over scrambled eggs, or roll into an omelet

Top steak or hamburgers.

If you want to eyeball quantities, try 2 1/2 times more mushrooms than sliced onions.

Mushrooms and Onions

For best flavor, use yellow cooking onions. Use any combination of mushrooms such as button, cremini, portobello or shiitake.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3 large onions, chopped
2 pounds fresh mushrooms, sliced
Generous amount of salt
Generous amount of pepper

In a large saucepan, heat the butter until foamy. Add the onions and cook over low heat until softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue sauteing until the mushrooms have given off their juices and are cooked through, about another 10 minutes. The mushrooms will lose a lot of their volume as they cook. Makes about 1 quart. Freeze half and watch the other half disappear sooner than you'd think.



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