Recipe originally published in Garden Heaven magazine
I once heard a food writer talk about an idea they’d had for a cookbook called ‘First Peel An Onion’. The idea was to provide inspiration during the moment when, as the first step of a recipe often dictates, you’re peeling an onion and waiting to see what happens next.
I don’t know if the book was ever actually written, but the phrase comes to mind every time I’m standing in the kitchen with no idea what to cook for dinner. And you know what, that calming, meditative moment spent peeling an onion is often enough to prompt a little culinary inspiration – by the time you can smell that golden, home-making scent of a gently frying onion, you’ve already picked a podcast, have started a kettle boiling for pasta and are well on the way to the makings of a ragù. Serenity restored.
In winter, I use an onion or two in almost every meal, and I particularly like red onions for the welcome slash of vibrant colour they offer. They also seem to have a sweeter, more pronounced flavour at this time of year. For me, red onions are the decorative one – best when on show – whilst boring but reliable, hardworking brown onions are better for using in casseroles, stews and curries.
The following recipe shows onions’ incredible capacity to transform a meal, given some heat and a little time. And for that, I for one am very grateful. So here’s to strong onions. May we know them, may we use them, may we celebrate them all winter long.
Balsamic Roast Onion & Smoked Mozzarella Focaccia
Makes 2 medium-sized focaccia or one larger one. You can get scamorza mozzarella in specialist grocers like Morton’s or Fallon & Byrne or in cheese sections in some larger supermarkets. If you can’t find it, smoked cheddar or smoked Gouda will work fine
For the dough
500g strong white flour
2 tsp fast-acting dried yeast
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp olive oil
300 ml warm water
For the topping
10 very small onions or shallots (around the size of a large radish; red if you can find them), peeled and halved
1 ball of Scamorza (smoked mozzarella cheese, available in most specialist food shops), sliced
2 tbsps olive oil, plus more to drizzle
2.5 tbsps balsamic vinegar
Pinch of caster sugar
Fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of chilli flakes
Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl and rub in the olive oil. Stir the sugar and yeast into the warm water and leave for a few minutes. Pour it into the flour and stir. Once roughly combined, dust a surface with flour and knead the dough for 8 mins, or until it is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise for an hour or so in a warm place. Once doubled in size, knock the dough back and cut into two pieces. Place each ball in a lightly oiled ovenproof dish and stretch out to fit each dish. Press the onion halves down into the dough. Brush the top of the dough with olive oil. Brush the onions with some of the balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with the sugar. Preheat your oven to 200c. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the dough is well puffed up and golden. Take the focaccia out of the oven and cover the gaps where there are no onions with the scamorza slices. Drizzle the remaining balsamic over the onions. Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Serve warm with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme leaves and chilli flakes.