With careful, slow cooking, you can turn the ordinary onion into a stew of delectable sweetness. Known as compote, marmalade or jam, it’s a cousin of the famed French onion soup, with the onions cooked to a thick, almost jam-like consistency.
To make compote, simply cook sliced onions gently in butter or oil. They soften, then gradually brown as their natural sugars caramelize. It’s up to you to decide what shade of brown you want. The onions taste good at all stages, from tender and pale to light golden to deep brown, when their bittersweet flavor is the most intense.
Don’t let them begin to blacken, though, or they will have an acrid, burnt taste. Be sure to use a heavy pan and check your onions frequently.
To slice an onion, cut it in half lengthwise, from its stem end through its root end. Put the halves on your cutting board cut side down and hold one half lightly with your fingers slightly curled. Hold the knife against your fingers and slice the onion crosswise in half-circles, moving your fingers back on the onion after each slice to guide the knife to cut even slices. When cut crosswise, the onions soften and almost melt to a sauce as they cook. If you prefer a chunky compote with more distinct pieces, slice them lengthwise instead.
Following the French, you can season the onions subtly with thyme and a bay leaf. A splash of wine vinegar is a pleasant accent for the compote. For a sweet-and-sour note, add a teaspoon of sugar as well. For spicy onions, stew them North African-style with chiles, paprika, cayenne and a few chopped tomatoes.
Onion compote makes a delicious relish alongside grilled meat or chicken or in a bun with sausages and sauerkraut. Try it as a change-of-pace pizza topping in the Alsatian fashion. Most often I turn the compote into a savory-sweet onion sauce for pasta or enjoy it with warm fresh bread.
Levy is the author of “Sensational Pasta” (HP Books, 1989).