For as long as I can remember, one relative or another has brought a dish full of creamed pearl onions to Thanksgiving dinner. The sauce is always broken, the onions are always poorly cooked, and the dish is always left virtually untouched. At the risk of breaking with tradition, I think I'm going to take over onion duty this year and make something the family will actually want to eat. I haven't decided what to cook yet, but we've got plenty of options—roasted cipollinis, braised leeks, Vidalia-studded mashed potatoes, and even creamed onions done right.
Cipollini onions are full of sugar, which is a double-edged sword—they caramelize beautifully if you're careful, but they're also prone to burning. In this recipe we cook them slowly, starting them on the stove over medium heat and finishing in a 325°F oven. Do it right and they'll come out tender, sweet, and deeply browned but not burned.
Sort of a deconstructed green bean casserole, this dish combines blanched green beans, sautéed mushrooms, and caramelized cipollinis. Each component of the dish can be cooked ahead of time—mix everything together and reheat it all just as your guests are about to sit down.
When you roast cipollini onions they get wonderfully soft and sweet, which lets them stand up to all sorts of assertive ingredients. In this salad that means bitter chicory, funky aged goat cheese, and crunchy cabbage and walnuts. With so much going on we can keep the dressing simple, so we go with just balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and garlic.
Pearl onions don't have the same intense sweetness as cipollinis, so we are fond of serving them with a light glaze. One of the easiest ways to do that is to simmer them in water or stock with butter, salt, and sugar. Take my advice and start with frozen peeled onions here—peeling fresh pearl onions is a huge pain.
If you'd rather embrace the more savory flavor of pearl onions, try slowly cooking them with stock and cream. We like to keep the rich sauce fairly simple so as not to overshadow the onions—all you need is a single bay leaf and a sprinkle of fresh parsley. This simple recipe is worlds away from the stuff I grew up avoiding on Thanksgiving.
A traditional gratin made with sliced potatoes requires too much prep—if you use small new potatoes you can just throw them in whole. Here we cook the potatoes with tiny pearl onions, bacon lardons, and heavy cream, then finish the casserole with a layer of Comté cheese and bread crumbs that bakes into a crunchy crust.
Minced shallots are great for adding a mild onion flavor to a variety of dishes, but they are delicate enough to work wonderfully on their own, too. One of the best ways to serve whole shallots is to roast them until spoon-tender and coat them in a sweet-sour glaze made with butter, sugar, and vinegar.
Leeks also have a subtle onion flavor that makes them work just as well as a main ingredient as a supporting one. To get the best flavor and texture out of the leeks, we caramelize them in a hot skillet before braising them in a mixture of wine and broth.
It's hard to find fault with classic mashed potatoes, but if you want something with a little extra flavor, then this is the recipe for you—stirring in caramelized Vidalia onions gives the potatoes a deep sweetness and some textural contrast. With milk, butter, sour cream, and cream cheese, this isn't the recipe if you're looking for a lighter Thanksgiving side.
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