There was a letter published in this magazine in October last year that made me burst out laughing. “Every time we chop an onion and sweat it in oil… it changes from being something that makes us cry to something that makes us smile with joy,” wrote Brian Smith from Berlin, quoting a line from my column the week before. “Every time?” Brian asked. “Don’t be daft.” I’m not sure why his letter tickled me quite so much, but I was chuckling for a good few days afterwards, whenever I chopped an onion.
Brian was right – I did go slightly over the top – but the point I was trying to make was about my awe for the simple yet almost magical process of transformation that happens with certain ingredients: how they can change so completely from one thing to another after the application of little more than heat and time. Brian can rest assured that I don’t spend my entire day in the kitchen wowing about these mini-miracles. Wow! How can this smooth, creamy chocolate be related to the bitter cacao pod from which it originates? Amazing! How can half an hour in the oven change garlic cloves so radically from one end of the raw-mellow spectrum to the other? But the transformation that occurs with alliums, in particular – from something raw, harsh and lingering on the breath to something so sweet, mellow and comforting after being cooked – is worthy of a moment’s pause, if not a full-blown smile full of joy.
Onion, chickpea and goat’s cheese salad
This can be served warm – in which case the spinach will wilt and the goat’s cheese will start to melt into the onions – or at room temperature. Serves six.
1kg medium banana shallots, unpeeled (about 15 shallots)
700g medium red onions, peeled and cut into 3cm-wide wedges (about 5 onions)
90ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper
15g fresh oregano leaves, torn
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
240g cooked chickpeas (or 1 tin, if you prefer)
½ tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp za’atar
1 tbsp cider vinegar
100g baby spinach
125g soft goat’s cheese, broken into 2-3cm pieces
20g pumpkin seeds, toasted
Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Put the shallots on a parchment-lined baking tray and roast, just as they are, for 40 minutes, until completely soft and the flesh is bursting out. Remove and, once cool enough to handle, cut off the shallots’ hairy tips and squeeze the flesh from their skins. Discard the skins and tear the flesh into 3cm-wide strips. Set aside (either at room temperature or somewhere warm) until required.
While the shallots are roasting, put the red onion wedges in a medium bowl with two tablespoons of oil, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Mix gently and spread out on a large parchment-lined baking tray. When the shallots have been cooking for 20 minutes, put the onions alongside and roast until soft and caramelised. Stir through the oregano and cook for five minutes more. Remove from the oven and set aside (either at room temperature or somewhere warm) until required.
Put a large saute pan on a high heat with two tablespoons of oil and the garlic. Once the garlic starts to sizzle, add the chickpeas, cumin, two teaspoons of za’atar, a pinch of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Fry for five minutes, stirring regularly, until the chickpeas start to become crisp. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Put the onions, shallots and chickpeas in a large bowl. Add two teaspoons of za’atar, the remaining two tablespoons of oil, the vinegar, spinach and a half-teaspoon of salt. Mix to combine, then gently stir in the goat’s cheese.
Spread out on a large platter, sprinkle over the pumpkin seeds and remaining two teaspoons of za’atar, and serve at once.
Garlicky beefburgers with cucumber salad and harissa sweet potato
Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic here: roasting turns the strong flavour it has when raw into something altogether more mellow, caramelised and sweet. Keep the pieces of feta nice and large – big chunks are much more satisfying than tiny ones. The cucumber salad, which is almost a pickle, is a fantastic companion to any roast meat or rich vegetable pies. Makes eight burgers, to serve four.
3 whole heads garlic
2 large sweet potatoes (skin on), cut lengthways into 2cm-wide and 10cm-long wedges
55ml olive oil
2 tsp dried oregano
Salt and black pepper
1½ tbsp rose harissa
2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
650g minced beef chuck
2 tsp ground cumin
200g feta, broken into 1.5cm chunks
For the cucumber salad
6 Lebanese cucumbers (or 2 medium cucumbers) cut on an angle into 0.5cm slices
½ medium red onion, finely diced (60g)
1 large green chilli, finely diced
4 tsp white-wine vinegar
½ tsp caster sugar
20g dill, roughly chopped
½ tsp nigella seeds
1 tbsp olive oil
Put all the salad ingredients in a bowl, stir in a third of a teaspoon of salt and set aside.
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Cut the tops off the garlic heads, to expose the tops of the cloves inside. Wrap the garlic in a large square of foil and roast for an hour. Remove and, once cool enough to handle, squeeze out the flesh into a small bowl, crush and set aside.
Turn up the oven to 230C/450F/gas mark 8. Put the sweet potato wedges in a large bowl with three tablespoons of oil, the oregano, half a teaspoon salt and a good grind of black pepper. Mix well, then spread out skin side down on a large, parchment-lined baking tray and roast for 15 minutes, until softening and starting to caramelise. Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix a third of the roast garlic paste with the harissa and sweet chilli sauce. Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven, brush them with the spicy paste and return to the oven for five minutes. Remove and set aside somewhere warm.
Turn down the oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2. Put the beef in a large bowl with the cumin, three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper. Mix in the remaining garlic paste, then add the chunks of feta and stir through gently, taking care not to break up the cheese too much. Shape the mixture into eight patties about 7cm in diameter and 2.5cm thick.
Put a nonstick pan on a medium-high heat with a teaspoon of oil. Once hot, add half the burgers and cook for four minutes on each side, until just pink in the middle, then transfer to a baking tray and keep warm in the low oven. Wipe clean the pan, add the final teaspoon of oil and cook the four remaining burgers. Serve at once, with the potato wedges and salad alongside.
This article is for informational purposes only, and is educational in nature. Statements made here have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please discuss with your own, qualified health care provider before adding in supplements or making any changes in your diet. PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: In order for me to support my blogging activities, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog.