THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Good enough to make you cry

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALIf you chop or slice onions often enough, you’ll eventually get “immune” to the effects of syn-propanethial-S-oxide, which causes your lacrimal glands to produce tears to flush this irritant. Or maybe it’s simply because I tend to purchase local sweet onions, including Maui onions, which tend to be lower in sulfur (the “thiol” part of the irritant) thus creating less of these irritating volatile compounds whenever the onion membrane is cut. Actually, the onion should cry as it’s the unsung hero of the culinary world, rarely achieving top billing in most culinary creations. In fact, the only top billing it gets that I can think of is French onion soup, and it’s debatable whether diners love the silky texture of properly browned onions or whether they consume the dish and onions, simply for the cheese topping.

The Essential Teammate
One of the standards in French cuisine is the mirepoix, which consists of equal parts chopped carrots, celery whether to fortify a braising liquid or create a sauce or gravy. However, the mirepoix is usually unceremoniously strained out of the final liquid — sometimes it’s pulverized with a hand blender to thicken the final liquid, but it’s the protein that takes top billing, even if that protein would not have been as delicious without the mirepoix fortifying the flavorful liquid. And although the Big Easy removes carrots from their classic trinity, it still maintains the celery and onion along with bell peppers to flavor their jambalaya, etouffee and Creole dishes. Well, at least Cajun and Creole cuisine leaves the Trinity intact so you know Mr. or Ms. Onion assisted in the creation of your entrée.

My favorite technique with allium cepa is to brown the slices, which then takes on a sweeter, savory flavor. However, I don’t caramelize onions often as it takes a lot of time! And you must keep stirring unless you desire softened onions on top and burnt onions on the bottom. But it’s one of my requisite ingredients for my Four Onion Foie Gras Tartlets or my Oxtail Jam. The sweet, nutty flavor of caramelized onions enhances almost any savory dish.

Maui onions. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Sweet Onions
As I mentioned, sweet onions tend to have less sulfur along with a little more water and sugar. Of course, this increase in moisture and sugar means they also have a shorter shelf life, even if refrigerated — I always store our onions in the refrigerator, as our house can exceed 100 degrees during the summer — but the cooler climate in various Stateside locales allows storage at room temperature. The main marketed sweet onions are Walla Walla from Washington state, Vidalia from Georgia and our own Maui onions sold locally. Years ago, you could find both Walla Walla and Vidalia onions in the 50th, but I guess that would be akin to Napa Valley selling wine grapes from New York, Oregon and Washington. As far as I’m concerned — and it’s not just because I live in the 50th — Maui onions are the best of the bunch as they maintain that onion flavor. While Walla Walla and Vidalia onions are a little sweeter than Maui onions, they don’t really have a good onion flavor. However, if you plan on having Maui onions shipped to you, make sure they’re grown on the slopes of Kula; the best Kula onions also tend to be twice as wide as they are tall, so look for those flat, wide onions from Kula.

Onion Recipes
The simplest application I have for onions is one of my favorite dips for potato chips or French fries; tartar sauce. And my version is as simple as it gets with just mayonnaise (Best Foods of course), dill pickle relish, minced sweet onions and freshly ground black pepper. I don’t add any boiled eggs or capers or mustard or even chopped parsley, as I simply want the tart, dill pickle flavor and sweet raw onion balanced by creamy mayonnaise. That’s why our pantry always has a large bottle (or two) of Best Foods mayonnaise, several bottles of dill pickle relish and sweet local onions. You never know when that 30-ounce bag of Cape Cod 40 percent reduced fat potato chips will accidentally open or when you accidentally find a tray of crisped tater tots in your oven, so you always need to have the fixin’s for a good dip on hand.

Pickled Variety
Because of the large Japanese American community in the 50th, you can find rakkyo or pickled scallion bulbs at most supermarkets. Most supermarkets also stock pickled onions created from the original Portuguese dish, Vinha D’Ahlos, which is a vinegar-based dish for fish or pork. However, the same spices can be used to create pickled onions and several local companies market their own pickled onions. While I don’t have a recipe for you (as we usually just purchase the finished product), I have the next best thing: packaged sauce from Noh Foods, which started in Hawai‘i in 1963, but is now packaged in Torrance, Calif. Along with a simple packaged mix to make your own pickled onions, Noh Foods also creates packaged mixes for a wide range of Hawai‘i dishes. https://www.nohfoods.com/collections/all-products/products/portuguese-vinha-dalos-mix

The following recipe had been a mainstay in the Tatsumoto household whenever Mom and Dad hosted a get-together and adult beverages were served (always). However, back in the day, real canned abalone didn’t require a second mortgage, so the focus was on the mollusks. However, the mollusks people use now are an abalone-like shellfish, and while it has the same consistency as abalone, it has almost no flavor at all, so I now focus on the onions, which absorb the slight seafood flavor with a semi-pickled consistency.

Shoyu Abalone Pupu (appetizer)
1 can abalone, drain liquid in a bowl, dice abalone into bite sized pieces
1/4 c shoyu
1/8 tsp Aji-no-moto
2 large, sweet onions, diced into bite sized pieces
1 small red chili pepper or several dashes of Tabasco
1 tbsp whisky
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar

Mix all ingredients with the drained abalone liquid and marinate for several hours.

Because the onions attain a semi-pickled texture and flavor, slicing them into thin strips then marinating would make them ideal garnishes for any type of seafood sandwich or even seafood tacos. I often skip the imitation abalone all together and simply use bottled clam juice to add that seafood flavor.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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