Saturday, July 9, 2011


Onion harvest.
When my kids were growing up, come dinnertime, all I had to do was heat a little olive oil in a pan and add a chopped onion, gently frying it a few minutes, and the kids would materialize from the depths of homework or TV asking, "Smells great, what's for supper?"  At which point, I could serve liver, fish brains, spinach or vetch and get away with it.  Nothing, I think, tantalizes the taste buds like the smell of onions cooking.

How could we cook in any language without that pungent member of the lily family, the onion?  Certainly, Spanish cuisine would be bereft without it, for its flavor is essential to many dishes. Onions are the basis for sofrito, a gently fried mixture that is the starting point for many traditional dishes.

Onions before harvest.

I am gloating over my new onion harvest—a basketful of big, golden onions that will last me several months. Stored in a cool, dry place, protected from light, they will keep until, in their natural cycle, they begin to sprout. Usually I have used them all up by then, but any that are sprouting can be replanted for an early crop of spring onions. 

The newly-harvested onions are nearly tear-free. Only when the sulphur compounds become more concentrated after storage does the job of chopping onions turn into a sob story.  Parboiling onions for about 4 minutes before chopping will reduce the tear factor, as will chopping under running water.  But, a good cry from time to time may well be one of the onion's endearing characteristics.

Chopped onions for sofrito.
I love to put sliced raw onions on toasted bread that has been drizzled with olive oil and topped with Manchego cheese. These fresh onions are remarkably sweet, without the bite.

If you want raw onions without the bite, soak them in milk or salt water for an hour; drain and rinse before incorporating in a garnish or salad.  Gentle cooking radically subdues the pungent, sulphurous quality of raw onions and causes their natural sugars to caramelize, adding a lovely colour and a slightly sweet taste.  Be careful not to scorch them or they will turn bitter.

Use onion skins, slowly browned, simmered and strained, to add depth of colour to stocks and sauces.  To make peeling onions easier, submerge briefly in boiling water or char over a gas flame or under the broiler.

Raw herbs and greens, especially parsley, are said to diminish the onion's lingering on one's breath; salt and lemon help to eradicate it from hands and pans.

While onions generally make up the supporting cast, in this recipe they have a starring role.

Grilled tuna with onion confit.

Atún con Cebollas Confitadas
Grilled Tuna with Onion Confit

Both in Andalusia and in the Basque Country, atún encebollado is a favorite dish. It consists of tuna braised with lots and lots of onions. This is a modernized version. The tuna is flash-cooked on a grill-pan and served with a deeply flavorful onion sauce. You should get to know Don Pedro Ximénez, aka PX. The sweet wines made from this grape varietal add alluring caramel and figgy flavours to sauces. If you can´t find PX wine, use a medium Málaga Muscatel or oloroso Sherry.

Cut the grilled tuna into squares to serve as a tapa or slice it for a dinner portion.

Makes 10 tapas or 2 main dishes.

2 large yellow onions
3 tablespoons olive oil plus additional for the grill
1 clove garlic, chopped
Grated orange zest
½ cup PX wine
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
10 ounce tuna steak, 1 inch thick
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon orange juice

Cut the onions in half, then slice them thinly crosswise. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onions and garlic. Cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until onions are dark brown, 40 minutes. Do not let them scorch.

Add the orange zest, PX wine and vinegar. Simmer another 10 minutes, until the sauce is syrupy. Reserve.

While onions are cooking, season the tuna with salt and pepper and sprinkle with orange juice. Allow to stand at room temperature 30 minutes.

Heat a ridged grill pan and brush with oil. Grill the tuna steak 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until browned on the surface but still pink on the inside. Remove and let rest 5 minutes.

Use a sharp knife to remove and discard skin and dark section of tuna meat. For tapas, cut into 10 squares, approximately 1 ½ inch. Stick each piece on a pick and spoon over the onion confit. Serve warm or room temperature.


  1. What a wonderful site! It´s true, it´s almost possible to start cooking in Spain in a zombified state since the sofrito is done every single day on automatic pilot. Will definitely use the above recipe - it sounds amazing.

  2. This sounds like a great recipe! I should try that!

    All the best,