Of Birthdays, Fine Dining, and Onions.

Yesterday, I gained a year. As a child, I couldn't wait for my birthday. The weather was usually just about to turn into the coolness I preferred, the new school year seemed exciting and full of fresh pencils and Trapper Keeper folders, and there was always a big family celebration to look forward to. My Mom's youngest brother is just 10 years older than me, and his birthday is at the tail end of August, so typically, we used the dual birthday excuse to have an enormous picnic. Most of my maternal side extended family all lived within a few miles of each other, and in the Great Northwoods of Wisconsin, there were plenty of lakes and picnic areas to choose from.

Earlier in the summer, my Mom would suspiciously take out the Wilton Cake Yearbooks (years 1977 and 1980) for my younger brother and I to look through and pick out which cake we would want for our birthdays, both upcoming in September. We would carefully pour over the pages, dreaming of moat surrounded castle cakes, giant robot cakes with pink and grey frostings, igloo cakes with penguins fishing in an icy blue pools of gel color. It took us quite a few years to determine that my Mom was really only going to make us one of three types of cake from the limited cake mold supply she had: a dome that became the dress of a doll when a clean and naked Barbie was standing in the center and frosted over with icing, a train painstakingly decorated with our pictures cut out in the windows, or a bear with his hand in mouth - the cake that all three of us had for our first birthdays. Now I know, that Mom was keeping us happily occupied for hours with those cake books, stimulating our imaginations and helping us dream of our birthdays, the most special day of the year.

I have the Wilton Yearbooks in my kitchen library, and nothing could convince me to get rid of them. I've sat with my Boy-O and carefully paged through them, helping him to be careful with the pages, since with every year, they get a little more fragile. Now, I tend not to get as excited about my birthday, not for any particular reason. I'm not all that afraid of aging, but I do feel a tinge of sadness thinking that no matter how much I wish as I blow out a candle, I can never return to my Mom's kitchen and those days of childish imagination.

Because I love to cook, I spend a good 90% of my weekly stipend on ingredients and sometimes frivolous (see: culinary torch) implements to expand my amateur abilities. I'm sure if I wanted, I could make all the excuses in the world to go out to eat, especially since my Husband loves dining out, but almost all of the time, I'd rather concoct things myself. We eat out on occasion, but rarely go to eat at fine dining establishments, saving it for such special occasions as our anniversary and my birthday.

For the past couple of years, my birthday has become a food event that I look forward to for weeks in advance. I can pick wherever I want to go, our budget is gloriously lifted for one precious evening, and I feel, at least for a few moments, like I'm a Rockefeller. Normally, I keep budget in mind, as a loose way to keep myself from being frivolous and free with cash. But because our fine dining experience is truly limited to a couple of times a year, the splurge always pays off in so many ways.

In When Harry Met Sally, (the late) Bruno Kirby was a columnist for New York Magazine who said "Restaurants are to people of the '80's what theater was to people of the '60's." I often think of this when I eat at a restaurant, especially a fine dining restaurant. Since I was just a kid in the '80's, and I lived in the rural Northwoods, I didn't do a whole lot of eating out. We ate very well, but not outside the home too often and just homemade, homegrown, home preserved and generally wholesome foods that weren't too fancy. My limited experience in the restaurant scene of the 21st century leads me to believe that it is like theater and art and gastronomy all rolled up into one.

This year, I chose Harbor House for my birthday splurge. Recently opened in July, I read this review by Carol Deptolla and tucked it away back in my mind. I sometimes enjoy reading restaurant critique, but not always so often, since I really believe that so much of an experience is relative. I mean, I know how to poach an egg for example, but the experience of ordering the egg, being served the egg, noting the placement of the egg on the plate, and eating the egg in an exceptional environment changes that lowly egg considerably. Where am I going with this? Deptolla is curious of the New England decor of the Harbor House, but I thought it was so gorgeous and well designed that it only added exponentially to my dining experience. Our food was amazing, perfectly prepared and gorgeous on the plate. Service was exceptional, as always at Bartolotta restaurants (not that I have been to them all).

I could go on and explain our meals, the way our raw oysters sat in the ice and challenged me (I ate three of them, and was not allergic, so that was a plus), that our supremely nice waitress brought me a sample of both pinot noirs by the glass, since I told her I never had tried one from France (Oregon won out - even at twice the price), and that watercress served as a condiment with beef and scallops is delicious and palate cleansing between bites. But I'll bet your experience would be different so I won't elaborate too much. I'll just say that when I get done eating and I'm so supremely happy, it's the best gift that anyone could ever give me - whether I've just sat in a window seat overlooking Lake Michigan, or at an enameled thrift store table in my best friend's kitchen.

While yesterday seemed to be full of spluge and excess, I remembered as we picked up our CSA box on the way home about the frugality that is usually my credo. In our weekly newsletter last week, our CSA mentioned that they had "grade B" onions to give away to anyone who desired. I emailed that I'd be interested after texting my Mom. Our exchange:

me: 20lb boxes of grade b onions (organic) free for the asking?!
Mom: Sure, for free you take, for pay you ask questions :)

That is the resolve with which I was raised. For free you take, and you make wonderful with. I didn't know exactly what I would get when I cut into the first onion today. They were soft, even mushy in parts. Each one was different and I found myself thinking about human nature once again as I cut into each one. Some had good centers, but layers of rot and decay surrounding them. Others had a few layers of superficial goodness, and rotting hearts. It was impossible to tell from the exteriors. Each one had a good and salvageable part, even if it took streams of tears down my cheeks as I sliced my way to the end of the box. I thought of the salad I ate at dinner last night, perfect specimens of tomatoes and red onions, thinly sliced and without blemish. How wrongly we think that to be edible, food has to be blemish free and gorgeous not steadfast and workhorse-y, with just a bit of extra work to be done to make them extraordinary.

I really had no idea what amount I would end up with! It was a fun and free adventure that reminded me that "peeling an onion, you find a lot of layers". The onions were soft, but not awful, their smells a clue that the rot was not malicious, just due to too much moisture or something. I weighed my final amount, and got 3 lbs, 10 oz of sliced, clean, organic onions, from what otherwise would have been garbage. I composted the rest, so that really nothing is wasted. I decided that I wanted to make caramelized onions.

By 9:30 this morning, all the onions went into the slow cooker with just a little olive oil. I'll add some black pepper and maybe a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or a pinch of brown sugar, maybe some thyme after they cook down a bit more. It's been about 5 hours at this writing, and they smell amazing and sweet and are filled with soft, oniony liquid that is quietly bubbling away. I check in and stir it every so often, and this cool front that has finally graced us allows open window and a sweater to be the perfect accompaniments to the syrupy onion smell that is intensifying as each hour passes today.

Nothing could be more comforting as I peel another year off of myself and go forward. Onions smell like home, that's for sure. It's good to be reminded that there is usually more to a person than meets the eye. I'm sure it is true for the baby-faced line cook I was observing from my seat in the dining theater last night. I wished that I knew I loved to cook so much when I was his age, and to be in kitchen whites in full sight of such a gorgeous view of the city and lake so early in my career.

It still seems funny to think that I can now clearly remember 20 years ago, and while I wish I could have figured out what I wanted to do about 10 ago when I was flailing my way around the college system, I have no regrets. I can peel an onion with the best of them, and I'm happy doing it. And I can do what I like with the good and scraps alike: hopefully turn it all into something good.

Onion Jam: The stuff obsessions are made of.

It really is no surprise that the onion is one of the oldest vegetables in the world. It is a vital base of so many different foods, and can be found in almost every culture's foodstuffs. Every time I saute them, I think of a study I read a long time ago that ranked them as the smell that most reminded men of being at home. Of course Googling such a subject topic to see where I may have read it revealed some interesting data, none of which I feel is appropriate to share here...

Sometimes, inspiration strikes in the strangest ways. I had some previously made flatbread dough and a small bowl of already sliced onions in the refrigerator last night, both from unfinished projects earlier in the week. The flatbreads were actually supposed to be made last Tuesday, and although the recipe said it would hold for 2 days in the fridge, I didn't know if it was going to make acceptable flatbread by Friday night, so I figured I would turn it into a skillet pizza - a trick I first saw Alex Guarnaschelli do a couple years ago on Food Network. The oven is preheated, 400 in my case, and you heat the skillet on the stove top with olive oil and sear both sides of a dough before topping it and finishing it in the oven. Since I had a bowl of sliced onions to use up (I don't even remember what I was going to use them for), I thought I would caramelize them for the pizza. While trying to be patient and stirring them, I was chatting away with Sasa, and we started talking about onion jam.

Pizza onions: higher heat, darker color.

I knew that the ones I was working on were going on a pizza, so I was not looking for the gently moderated heat that renders onions magically gelatinous. I got them done, finished up the pizza, and began plotting about onion jam. First thing this morning I starting my perusal for onion jam recipes. Some looked too sweet and some were more on the pickled side, but I finally found this one on Panini Happy, and knew it was more on par with what I was after. I am still looking for a recipe that would be able to be canned, if anyone can help me out - but meanwhile, I adapted the Panini Happy recipe to what I had on hand and my own personal taste.

I used 1 1/2 pounds of regular Wisconsin storage onions (about 6 medium/small ones), they were fairly strong. After cooking down, they yielded 10 1/2 oz. of jam. I also made a batch of granola in the interim, since most of the cooking time is largely unattended (and my oven was hot from roasting the garlic). It's always good to have a second project, so you don't go batty while waiting for the onions to soften. Your patience will be rewarded! I did set a timer for each of the caramelizing steps, which is much nicer than trying to rely solely on color, especially if you get interruptions. The original recipe said that it will last a week under refrigeration, but I suspect it could last longer. If you don't polish it off right away, that is.

Onion Jam
  • 1 1/2 lbs. onions, frenched (sliced)
  • 1 head of garlic, roasted
  • 1 T. granulated sugar
  • 2 T. dark brown sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 T. balsamic vinegar (I used 2, and then 2 of red wine vinegar, since it appears that I need to add balsamic vinegar to my shopping list)
  • water
Heat a lidded saute pan over medium heat, and saute onions in a t. of olive oil until softened and translucent, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes. If they start to stick at all, cover the pan, and turn your heat down a bit.

Add sugars, cover the pan, and continue cooking and stirring occasionally for another 20-30 minutes until the onions are golden brown.

Add 1/4 c. water, cover the pan, and continue cooking and stirring occasionally for another 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, mash up the roasted garlic cloves with a fork, and mix with the vinegar.

Then add the mashed garlic/vinegar mixture and an additional 1/4 c. of water and cook and stir until nicely thickened, another 10 minutes or so.

Lean towards the 30 minute mark if you want a darker jam, I stuck closer to the 20 minute marks, and mine was a beautiful, butterscotch color.

After having some of those great grilled cheese combinations on Thursday, I know I'll have at least one foray into the sandwich realm with this jam. The funny thing is, I ate a spoonful, and immediately wanted some with eggs. Weird! So, I will let you know if some onion-y eggs appear anywhere around my home this week. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be doing a lot with this humble condiment...