While cooking sweet and sour cipolline, I reflected on sides, dishes that traditionally accompany other courses.
But what if the side was not just a splash of color to complement the main course?
The sides and the table.
And whether that plate of vegetables is instead the indicator for measuring the importance of a meal?
Take cipolline in agrodolce (sweet and sour onions). I make this recipe for special occasions or, conversely, to make an otherwise ordinary lunch special or, finally, as an implicit acknowledgement of love towards the people I have cooked for.
Just sit down and give me a minute, I’ll get to the point.
Think of Sunday lunches and festive meals: when does a succulent roast ever come with just one simple side? On the contrary, is it not a certain number of sides on the table that defines, historically and culturally, the importance of an occasion or an event?
With this thought in mind and the onions mumbling softly in the covered pan, I re-read an old article by Michael Roberts in the Los Angeles Times, where he espouses the side theory. “It’s the multitude of side dishes, not the “core” of the meal, that defines our traditional feasts”.
However delicious the main course may be, it is the number of vegetables that defines the importance of the feast: baked potatoes, cipolline in agrodolce, trays of vegetables au gratin. It is their quantity that determines a sense of abundance proportional to the well-being we wanted to transmit through the meal.
A multitude of side dishes are a sign of love, or regard, for the guests.
And this is still true today.
In the meantime, in my opinion, sides have undergone a further evolution.
They continue to define feasts and Sunday lunches.
But it is in everyday cooking that they have taken on a new role compared to the recent past.
Only a few years ago, the typical daily meal of an Italian middle-class family consisted of a first, main course and side. But today everyday meals almost always consist of a single course and one portion of vegetables. Sometimes the single course is made up of several side dishes, where cooked and raw vegetables are placed alongside, leaving the eater free to decide whether and how to mix.
This is also my food-style, except on special occasions when the menu is more traditional and rich in dishes and, yes, also in sides.
Between everyday and festive cooking, I sometimes have the impression that I cook mainly side dishes, which are now claiming a protagonist role on the table.
I’d love to know something about your table and, if you feel like it, I’ll be waiting for you in the comments.
Sweet and sour onions caramelized with balsamic are still the side dish for special occasions or the one I prepare to make me happy.
Sweet and sour Borettane onions: cooking and variety.
If you find a recipe that says ‘ready in 20 minutes’, throw it out.
The sweet and sour onions need to cook for a long time, over and over again, on a low heat, while the sauce shrinks to a thick, dark, molasses-like consistency.
The onion sauce is sweet and sticky like caramel thanks to sugar and balsamic vinegar.
During the cooking, an exchange of humors takes place in a way that is good for the dish; the little onions soften and the balsamic sauce absorbs some of the sour aroma of the borettana.
In Bologna, it is used the variety known as the Borettana, that takes its name from the little town of Boretto, in the province of Reggio Emilia, where it was already being grown in 1400.
It is a small onion with a characteristic shape of the bulb flattened both above and below.
Once peeled and cooked, their weight is significantly reduced. That’s why I advise you to buy a certain quantity. If you can’t find Borettane, choose a small, flat, white onion.
Sweet and sour onions are best served warm as a side for roasts and meats.
I also like to serve them with a savory pie, a board of cheeses or on a menu with other vegetables.
If you prefer, you can use wine vinegar instead of balsamic and omit the addition of Marsala.
Buona cucina, Monica
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Sweet and Sour Onions with Balsamic Vinegar
700g fresh, un-cleaned Borettane onions (or a similar onion)
80g balsamic vinegar
50g caster or cane sugar
4 tbsp Marsala wine
100ml stock or water
olive oil, butter and salt
If they have a skin, rub the onions to remove it.
Then rinse under running water and blanch the Borettane in unsalted boiling water for two minutes.
Drain and pour into a bowl of cold water. It will be easier to peel them, remove the external furry stuff with a small knife and also the inner core, the green one which I personally prefer to remove, but do as you like.
In a large pan, melt a few knobs of butter with two tablespoons of olive oil, place the onions so that they are spread out on the bottom of the pan, and sauté for a few minutes over low heat. Add salt, cover with broth or water, put the lid on so that the pan is almost completely covered and cook over a medium-low heat for 20 minutes, checking the cooking from time to time and, if necessary, adding the remaining broth/water a little at a time.
At this stage, broth and butter are used to polish, glaze, the onions.
After 20 minutes, sprinkle the sugar and add Marsala and balsamic vinegar. Do not stir, just gently move the onions with a spoon.
If the cooking liquid is completely absorbed, add some broth/water so that there is always a thin layer of liquid on the bottom.
Turn down the heat and continue to cook for a further 20 minutes.
Halfway through the last step of the cooking, check the onions. If they are soft and have a nice golden brown color, remove them from the pan and allow the sauce to reduce, which you can pour directly over the onions before serving. Or put the vegetables back in the pan and cover with a lid to keep them warm until serving time.
In general, I recommend that you only heat the sauce to prevent the onions from breaking.
And if necessary, don’t be afraid to add a tablespoon of water to get the sauce going again.