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Onions and Garlic: Who Could Live Without Them?

February 29, 1996|JESSE ZIFF COOL | Cool is the author of "Onions: A Country Garden Cookbook" (Collins Publishers), from which this is excerpted

Onions and garlic run through my blood. My heritage is Jewish and Italian, and these twin influences taught me early on that onions and garlic are as important as salt, pepper and a close-knit family.

Nonna taught me how to prepare old-fashioned Italian food, rich with these ingredients. I remember staying close to her in the kitchen while she cooked greens laced with olive oil and stuffed huge ravioli with slowly stewed onions and meat. Bubbe cooked strictly kosher, feeding me oniony-potato pancakes and garlicky homemade pickles.

Both households greeted me at the front door with the welcome aromas of onions or garlic drifting from the kitchen. To this day, the fragrances from a pan of sauteing onions or the perfume of garlic roasting in the oven draws me back to the past.

At an early age, I was taught that eating lots of garlic would bring me good luck and that onions were essential to the maintenance of healthy blood. It's no surprise to me that the members of my family rarely get sick and that when they do, the illness is always short-lived. Call it heredity, but I believe it's the onions and garlic.

There are two kinds of onions: those harvested in the spring or summer and those harvested in the fall. The differences are crucial. Spring/summer onions are mild, full of water, fragile and best eaten raw or lightly cooked. Storage onions, the ones harvested in fall, are dense and meaty and more pungent than summer onions. They taste best cooked.

But don't limit the onion, or any other member of the onion family, to specifically defined culinary roles. When a dish calls for green onions, try substituting onion cousins such as chives, baby leeks, green garlic or young shallot shoots. In recipes where onions are sauteed, use shallots or leeks for a softer, gentler flavor. Substitute red onions for yellow onions and leeks for mild white onions. And remember, onions are more than just bulbs. Use them throughout their lives, from sprouts to greens to mature bulbs.

GRILLED SALMON ON CHIVE BLOSSOM MASHED POTATOES

I would call the early '90s the mashed potato era. An unstable economic environment sent many of us back to the basics, searching for sensible foods to fill our bodies and souls. Food professionals have a tendency to take everythinga step or two further, which is how these luscious mashed potatoes came to be. If you like, pan-sear rather than grill the salmon fillets.

1/2 cup creme fraiche

3 tablespoons seeded and grated cucumber

2 tablespoons grated red onion

2 tablespoons dry vermouth

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 pounds medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut lengthwise into quarters

1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

6 tablespoons sour cream

Milk, optional

2 to 3 tablespoons garlic or chive flower petals, plus 1 tablespoon for optional garnish

White pepper

Clarified butter, melted

4 (7- to 8-ounce) salmon fillets

4 teaspoons caviar or 8 teaspoons chopped black olives, optional

Combine creme fraiche, cucumber, onion and vermouth in small bowl. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Set aside to allow flavors to blend.

Prepare mesquite fire in grill.

Meanwhile, bring large saucepan 3/4 full of water to boil. Add potatoes and boil until tender when pierced, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and mash in bowl with potato masher, or pass through ricer or food mill into bowl. Add butter and stir until melted. Add sour cream and, using electric mixer or large spoon, whip until smooth and fluffy. If necessary, thin with milk to desired consistency. Stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons garlic blossom petals. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Keep warm.

Place clarified butter in shallow bowl and dip salmon fillets, 1 at time, into butter. Place on rack and grill, turning once, to desired doneness. Medium-rare is best, if fish is very fresh, which would be 3 to 5 minutes on each side, depending on thickness of fillets.

Mound equal amount of mashed potatoes on each of 4 individual serving plates. Top each mound with salmon fillet and few generous tablespoons creme fraiche mixture. Garnish with optional chive blossoms and caviar.

Makes 4 servings.

ONION RINGS WITH KOREAN HOT SAUCE

ONIONS

2 large onions, cut into thick slices or wedges

Cold water

Peanut oil for deep-frying

Salt

Combine onions and cold water to cover in large bowl. Let stand.

Pour oil into heavy-bottomed saucepan or electric fryer to depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat until begins to smoke.

Hot Sauce

HOT SAUCE

1/3 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Combine soy sauce, mirin, ginger, garlic, sugar, red pepper flakes and chives. Stir well. Set aside.

BATTER

1 cup unbleached white flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 egg

1 cup ice water

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