I think onions are really beautiful. They’re sort of like the nerdy girls of the vegetable set: quirky, opinionated, open-minded. They’re lovely to behold, with their smooth papery shells and shiny, almost translucent rings. Like the nerdy girls, onions are hard to pin down. In raw form, they are sharp, offensively so to some palates, but with heat, their sharpness mellows while their sweetness intensifies. I always think of onions as savory, but theirs is a savory that mingles with sweet, a hybrid savoriness, if you will.
I love cooking with onions. To me, the soup-making process officially begins when the chopped onions have been added to the pot. The aroma of onions meeting hot fat marks the transition from puttering around in the kitchen to officially cooking something. It’s an important moment.
Though I have been cooking with onions for years, learning to cook with them is an on-going process. I realized how much I still want to learn from Matt, he of the wafer-thin salad onions and caramelized onion calzones. Onions have interesting synergies with other ingredients; they do things that are both unexpected and delightful. In these “aha!” moments, I long for the chance to take a cooking class where I get to learn all about one ingredient: onions one day, perhaps asparagus the next, oatmeal another time. There is so much to learn.
For now, I’m content to putter around in my home kitchen, cookbooks pinned open and chopping block at the ready. My approach is haphazard at best, trying and tweaking recipes until something tastes good and worthy of a repeat. I’m no scientist in the kitchen, that’s for sure. It’s more fun this way, looser and more relaxed. And I’m still learning, despite ditching the scientific method and its rigid insistence on controls and reproducibility.
One person who I know would enthusiastically endorse my fun-not-formal approach to cooking is Rachael Ray. Say what you will about this most (in)famous of celebrity (un)chefs, but I like Rachael Ray (in limited doses). Her cookbooks are a treasure trove of good ideas, though sometimes I do wonder how many times her recipes are tested before they go to print. In my years of tweaking recipes to fit my taste (meatless, lower fat, whole grain—the list goes on), Rachael Ray recipes tend to be hit or miss. This is not the case with recipes from other sources—Orangette recipes, for example, are incredibly forgiving to tweaks, which I deeply appreciate. Nigella Lawson recipes are also reliable for tweaking. But Rachael’s are fickle in a way that I do not understand. So when I flip through one of her cookbooks, it’s like rolling the dice. Sometimes I get lucky.
Today’s recipe, a side dish of shallots and spinach cooked in garlic oil and white wine, is a winner. It started as a slight obsession with a recipe for Warm Chopped Chicken Piccata Spinach Salad, a cooked spinach “salad” to which Rachael adds chopped chicken breasts and a roll for mopping up all the juices. But all I wanted was the spinach part, a spinach saute with a pan sauce of olive oil, butter, white wine, and lemon juice. It sounded refreshing and soothing, perky and pleasing all at once. It also sounded like the sort of thing I could handle after a long day at work, and those recipes are always welcome in my kitchen.
My first attempt at it was not bad, but the lemon juice was too much. It overwhelmed the other flavors. So I tried again, skipping the lemon juice and relying instead on the flavor of the wine to add complexity. This time, I got it right—the spinach was tender, infused with garlic and Riesling, with a sprinkling of salt to round out the flavors. But while the spinach was good, the shallots were amazing, their oniony savor sweetly drenched with the flavors of wine and garlic. To finish the dish, I topped it with a few toasted almond slivers, adding texture and some nuttiness. The only trouble with this dish, as I see it, is that it may force me to visit the grocery store several times a week to buy more spinach—a sacrifice I’m willing to make for a delightful new recipe.
Sauteed Spinach with Shallots and White Wine
Adapted from Express Lane Meals by Rachael Ray
Serves 1-2 as a side dish
It is hard for me to be too specific with this recipe, as it’s the sort of thing that invites you to make it by feel, especially after you’ve tried it once and realized you’d like more garlic oil or less wine. Please be my guest and tinker as you like. Also, about those almonds: I am extremely greedy around toasted almond slivers and tend to pile them on without restraint. If I was serving this to someone else, however, I’d probably use just one tablespoon of almonds for two servings. So in the recipe, I offer you a range.
1-2 tbsp. slivered almonds
1/2 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
2-3 tbsp. white wine (I used a $10 grocery store Riesling here, which was quite tasty)
About 2.5 ounces prewashed baby spinach (about half of a 5-ounce container—4 or 5 generous handfuls)
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1) Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the almonds on a small baking sheet and toast for about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2) Heat the garlic-infused oil over medium-high heat in a nonstick skillet. Add the chopped shallots and saute for 2-3 minutes, until the shallots are softened, fragrant, and perhaps even a little browned.
3) Add the wine to the shallots and let about half of it cook off—this will happen very fast. Add half the spinach, stir it around a few times, and cover the pan. Cook for a few minutes, then add the rest of the spinach, cover, and cook for another minute.
4) At this point, you can serve it as is, or if you’d like a less juicy dish, let the wine and juices cook off more. Season with salt (not too much) and maybe a tiny bit of black pepper. Plate and top with the toasted almonds. Serve.