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AROMATIC GLORY OF THE ONION : Unusual uses for onions include a burger-topping marmalade, below

April 30, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

If one could package the potent drawing power of the odor of frying onions, it might well be worth a fortune. One whiff of this earthy aroma, and anyone within "nose-shot" will, usually without being aware of it, gravitate toward the kitchen to see what's going on. Add a little garlic, another member of the allium family, to the same skillet and you'll be fighting off a veritable stampede.

Members of the onion family--from the familiar long green salad onions to the common "dry" round variety to the glitzy sweet type such as the Maui, Walla Walla, Vidalia and Imperial Sweet--all have this unusual universal appeal. Neither glamorous nor particularly pretty, onions are used extensively in nearly every cuisine known to humans. Throughout the centuries they have been the subject of myths and touted as curatives for certain medical problems, but their main claim to fame for thousands of years has been their role as a delicious food.

That an onion can be difficult to deal with on occasion is no myth, however. Hundreds of solutions have been noted for ways to avoid tearing up when chopping or slicing fresh onions. None really works, however, so philosophical cooks just gird up their courage by anticipating how wonderful this root vegetable is going to taste and get on with the tearful task.

In his encyclopedia, Food, the late Waverley Root noted that, "Cooking does indeed render harmless the raw onion, which draws tears from the eyes, creates difficulties for those of weak digestion and offends many by its sulfurous smell. These qualities stem from the diabolic origin of the onion, of which we are informed by an ancient Turkish legend which explains that when Satan was cast out of heaven, garlic sprouted where he first placed his left foot and onions where he placed his right."

Whatever one believes about the origin of the onion, its beginnings definitely lie in obscurity. Evidence indicates it probably first became known in Asia, where it was cultivated by prehistoric humans. Its continuing popularity as time passed is apparent in the fact that its likeness has been found in temple decorations in ancient Egypt and was actually mentioned in the original code of law, the Code of Hammurabi, which stated that the needy were to receive a monthly supply of bread and onions.

Certainly onions, from the beginning, could not be ignored. Castigated by some, adored by others, all members of this aromatic lily family of vegetables continue to play important roles in ethnic cuisines everywhere. Leeks, garlic, red, white and yellow round onions, boilers, shallots, green onions--all are readily available to add their own individual flavors to all types of prepared foods, from the earthiest peasant dish to the most elegantly classical presentation.

The upscale sweet onions that can only be described as pricey, should be relatively plentiful now and for the next month or so. And all other onions will not only be in good supply, prices on them should be excellent in coming weeks.

Although usually used as a flavoring ingredient for other foods, there are some dishes that make the most of onions in their own right. A sampler of some of the more interesting onion recipes that have surfaced recently follows.

LEEK SOUP

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons butter

4 leeks, sliced

1 quart chicken broth

3 potatoes, cubed

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

Salt, white pepper

2 carrots, shredded

Melt 1/4 cup butter in large soup pot. Add leeks and saute a few minutes. Pour in chicken broth. Bring to boil. Add potatoes. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender.

Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in small saucepan. Stir in flour and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir into soup. Slowly add milk and bring to slow boil. Cook just until slightly thickened. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Sprinkle with carrots. Makes about 9 1/2 cups.

JACKIE OLDEN'S ONION MARMALADE

1/2 cup butter

6 red onions, sliced

6 shallots, sliced

3 tablespoons sugar

1 cup red wine

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

Melt butter in skillet. Saute red onions and shallots until tender. Add sugar, red wine and balsamic vinegar. Simmer until liquid is almost gone. (Mixture freezes well, or can be canned.) Serve with hamburger or meat loaf, if desired. Makes about 8 servings.

ALBANIAN ONION PIE

(Burek Me Qep)

Olive oil

6 medium onions, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Salt, freshly ground pepper

6 eggs

1 cup milk

20 sheets filo pastry

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in large skillet. Add onions. Saute until golden but not browned. Add mint and salt and pepper to taste. Beat eggs in large bowl. Beat in milk. Add onion mixture.

Butter 13x9-inch pan or 9-inch round deep dish. Trim stack of filo pastry sheets to fit pan. Cut in halves if sheets are large. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.

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