Could anything be simpler than creamed onions? I mean, it’s cream, and then it is onions. And you cook them together. The end. Or perhaps the beginning of another piece of evidence that I can take the simplest thing and make it, er, long-winded. First, I involved Thomas Keller, or rather, he beckoned me. I was getting a pedicure a couple weekends ago (figuring I’d put my family and also those other moms at the gym class I took the baby to out of their misery) and on the armrest was that week’s New York Magazine, boasting Thanksgiving recipes from some great New York chefs within. Obviously, I turned there first and though, again, creamed onions are really just cream and onions therefore not inherently interesting, the recipe was from Thomas Keller and he is a master of taking the seemingly simple and making it amazing. I was in.
Next up, finding pearl onions. Look, I did not go to every stand in Union Square on every day that the Greenmarket was open, but I looked once or twice and didn’t find them. I finally ordered them from Fresh Direct, cringing anticipating that they’d be shipped from Timbuktu or someplace halfway around the globe, only to learn that they’d been grown in New Jersey. Just like me! Win.
Then I got to peeling them because I wanted to make them for a pot-luck where my friends planned to “practice” some of their Thanksgiving dishes. And I peeled them. And I peeled them. And then I started wondering why I hadn’t bought frozen peeled onions, which even Ina Garten approves of. And then I remembered that I never see them in stores. And then I put down the paring knife and made some phonecalls, Smitten Kitchen, Service Journalism-style. Bird’s Eye informed me that they sell frozen pearl onions in 9-ounce boxes. Cascadian Farms told me that they only sell frozen pearl onions and peas together in a mix, but agreed that since they obviously have possession of frozen and peeled pearl onions that they should consider selling them pea-free. Green Giant does not sell them frozen, but one of their brands, Le Seuer sells them blanched and canned. I’m not sure I’d go with canned, however, but that’s just because I’ve never tried them. [Updated to add: Trader Joes sells these too! Thanks for the tip, people.]
I never finished peeling them in time to make them for the dinner party, because better things distracted me, but that’s neither here nor there. When I got back to my onions a day later, everything was going along swimmingly until I reached the instruction that called for a cartouche which I am sure you already know what it is (I mean, who doesn’t?) but just in case, it is a piece of parchment paper with a one-inch circle cut from the middle, fitted into a pan and used as a lid. Why not just use a freaking lid, Thomas Keller? I implored him through the magazine. Why you gotta be so fancy? Deb, (yes, I talk to myself all of the time in the kitchen) I imagined him saying, this paper lid slows down the reduction of moisture in cooking; a lid lets too little out, no lid, too much. And Deb, is there anything actually stopping you from making a cartouche? You have parchment paper, you have scissors! And so I made a
bleeping cartouche but I’m not sure that a slightly askew lid wouldn’t have had a close-enough effect.
And the onions? They were very very good. I knew Keller (or technically, his mama) wouldn’t let us down, and he didn’t. Sure, it may sound like creamed onions = cream + onions but this is more. It’s smoky salty drippings and nutmeg and thickened cream and sherry and chives and bits of browned bacon and is worth every one of the minutes I spent peeling those onions. If you’re only making one side this year, this could easily be it. If you’re only allowed to make one side and want that one side to upstage all of the other sides, this should definitely be it. Deb, you say, that’s not a very benevolent and bountiful holiday outlook! And I say, it’s okay, you’re among friends.
One year ago: Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie
Two years ago: Home Fries, Apple Pancakes and a Fennel, Proscuitto and Pomegranate Salad I was just daydreaming about yesterday.
Three years ago: Pumpkin Waffles and Creamy White Polenta with Mushrooms
Four years ago: Shrimp Cocktail + Artichoke Potato Gratin
Creamed Pearl Onions with Bacon and Chives
Adapted from Thomas Keller’s mother
Because this is a Thomas Keller recipe, it originally called for 80 tiny onions, you know, so you can count them one by one. Because this Thomas Keller recipe has been adapted by Smitten Kitchen, I will tell you that 3 of those 10-ounce bags you can buy the fresh pearl onions in yielded 102 onions, and so I scaled the recipe accordingly below, to 125 percent, not because I enjoyed peeling tiny onions so much that I wanted to throw in 22 extra but because I knew the remaining onions would go otherwise unused, and that seemed wrong. I didn’t scale up the nutmeg or sherry, however, because I felt they were strong enough.
Remember how I went on and on about the cartouche (bless you!) (yeah, I’m 12) up there? Forget it. Skip it. It slowed things down too much. While waiting for the cream to reduce by half, the onions overcooked, some fell apart, and deposited too much water in the cream. (You might be able to tell from the photos.) I recommend below cooking them with a lid slightly ajar and when the onions are getting there, about 90 percent cooked through, remove the lid and reduce the cream by half. Plus, you won’t have to make French origami.
100 or so pearl onions, unpeeled (from 3 10-ounce bags)
2 1/2 ounces bacon (applewood-smoked is suggested), cut into a small dice
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons sherry
1/2 bunch chives, cut into 1/2-inch segments
Kosher salt, to taste (I used 1 teaspoon of Diamond Kosher salt)
Blanch the pearl onions for 3 minutes in a pot of boiling salted water. Drain, shock in a bath of ice water, and drain again. Peel the onions (making a slit with a paring knife down the side made this easiest for me), leaving a little of the root end intact.
[Want to use frozen, already peeled onions instead? I list some potential sources in the post.]
in a medium saucepan, cook the bacon until crisp, then remove it with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels. Leave only two tablespoons of the cooking fat in the pan, and add the pearl onions, heavy cream and nutmeg. Add salt to taste.
Cover the pot with a lid, leaving it a little ajar. Cook onions until they are nearly cooked through, about 90 percent of the way then remove the lid and finish cooking the onions while reducing the cream by half. Stir in the sherry.
If your onions are done cooking before the cream has sufficiently reduced or if you’re unsure about the alcohol in the sherry, remove the onions with a slotted spoon and transfer them to your serving dish. Continue cooking the remaining sauce to the desired consistency and taste and pour it back over the onions.
Garnish with bacon and chives and don’t forget to share.