An Ode to Onions, Humble and Glorious

In words (by her) and photos (by him), a Lambertville couple reveals the genius of the genus allium—gifts from the ground, packed with flavor.

A kimchi-scallion omelet.
A kimchi-scallion omelet.
Courtesy of Guy Ambrosino.

The lowly onion may be the culinary equivalent of the state of New Jersey: underrated in general, repugnant to some, yet hardworking, full of character and (literally) down-to-earth.

“They’re just so dependable,” says food writer and recipe developer Kate Winslow. “They’re the bedrock of cooking.”

“There’s part of me that really likes an underdog,” adds her husband, food photographer Guy Ambrosino. “And onions are an underdog.”

The Lambertville duo do the underdog proud in their new work, Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook, a sumptuous celebration in recipes and color photographs of the diverse allium family: yellow, white, red, sweet, pearl and cipollini onions, scallions, chives, shallots, leeks, ramps, garlic scapes and garlic.

Winslow and Ambrosino, who live in a converted two-car garage with son Elio, 11, have worked together and separately on various food-related projects, and both freelance for Applegate, the Bridgewater-based purveyor of natural meats. They’re also part of a community of Hunterdon County farmers and cooks that orbit around the Farm Cooking School in Titusville.

Onions Etcetera chronicles a journey, that began before they settled in Jersey in 2010. They met in New Mexico, where both worked at a small newspaper. They bounced between New York and Philadelphia for years before moving to Sicily, where they spent a year at the Anna Tasca Lanza School of Sicilian Cooking, enjoying still-warm sheep’s milk and other ingredients fresh off the land. Nearly every recipe they learned there involved onions—most compellingly for Winslow, the lush red onions in Sicily.

When Burgess Lea Press, for whom they had worked individually on various projects, suggested they create a book of their own, they proposed several ideas, but were most passionate about onions.

As the authors see it, people only think they don’t like onions. What they don’t realize, they say, is that onions do much of the heavy lifting—in terms of boosting flavor—in foods they truly love.

Raw onions, especially, get a bad rap. Some people find them harsh and acrid, others shun them for fear of bad breath. Winslow comes to the rescue: If you soak sliced onions in cold water for 20 minutes, drain and pat them dry, you’ll get a much mellower raw-onion experience.

Soaking whole onions in cold water, she adds, wards off another bugaboo: the tear-inducing eye burn.

While Onions Etcetera is filled with exotic and savory recipes from around the globe, the most enchanting recipe comes down through Ambrosino’s New Jersey Italian family and goes by the name fried water. Its main ingredient is, yes, water, plus one onion, one egg and one piece of stale bread for each person at the dinner table. It represents the ingenuity of Italian grandmothers, onions as the genesis of everything savory, and, as Ambrosino puts it, “this idea of gathering people and eating food together.”

Like many recipes in the book, it starts with the siren smell of onions sizzling on the stove.

In a book about the humble onion, fried water is undoubtedly the most humble recipe. It doesn’t even merit a photo.

“There’s nothing pretty about it,” Winslow says. “But it’s really super comforting.”

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