Mexico Life
If you find onions in Mexican markets with the papery skin still on, grab 'em. If you find onions in Mexican markets with the papery skin still on, grab 'em.

When adding onion to recipes, let color be your guide

Each type brings subtle flavor differences to take into account

Here’s another odd thing I miss since moving to Mexico: onions sold with their skins on. Seems to me the papery skin keeps them fresher; they look kind of naked and vulnerable without it.

But more often than not, that’s how they’re sold. I look at the stem ends and try to find ones that aren’t brown and dried out.

Old onions don’t have the pungent flavor we’re looking for. When I do find “whole” onions, I’m always a little thrilled.

Without getting into smaller varieties or shallots, the three most common onion types — yellow, red or purple and white — have subtle flavor differences.

Yellow onions are the sweetest and have been bred for even more sweetness (think Walla Walla and Vidalia) and are the best for caramelizing or everyday use. They’re what gives classic French Onion Soup its distinctive flavor.

You can add some kick to these pickled onions with jalapeño.
You can add some kick to these pickled onions with jalapeño.

White onions have an even milder flavor, with a more subtle sweetness. They’re what’s most commonly used in Mexican cooking and recipes, and while you can use any kind of onions in, say, salsa, white ones are traditional.

Red onions (my personal favorite), have a sharper flavor and more distinctive presence in recipes, whether cooked or raw. Plus, they have that distinctive purply-red color that I love!

In ancient Egypt, onions’ concentric rings and spherical shape symbolized eternal life, and traces of them have been found in burial tombs — and in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.

We modern-day humans find a different, not quite as spiritual, effect on our eyes from onions, eh?

Dennis’s Pickled Onions

Variations of pickled onions are eaten all over the world.

  • 2 cups julienned red onion (1 big one)
  • 2 cups rice wine or apple cider vinegar
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • Optional: minced fresh jalapeño

In a pot, combine sugar, salt and vinegar. Bring to a boil. Place onions (and jalapeño if using) in a deep bowl or container. Pour pickling liquid over onions.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

Crispy Potato, Onion & Mushroom Rösti

  • 3 medium russet potatoes, cut into 1/16 -inch matchsticks or grated
  • 5 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup julienned onion
  • ½ cup button mushrooms, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated
  • 2 tsp. fresh cilantro, parsley or thyme leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Spread potatoes on microwave-safe plate and microwave on high until softened but still slightly crisp, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp. oil in large non-stick or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.

Mexicanize this German classic potato and onion dish by adding a few sprigs of cilantro to the recipe.
Mexicanize this German classic potato and onion dish by adding a few sprigs of cilantro to the recipe.

Add onion and mushrooms and cook, stirring, until softened and starting to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and herbs; cook 30 seconds. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to small bowl; wipe out skillet.

Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in same skillet over medium heat.

Add half of potatoes; press into bottom of pan with rubber spatula. Season with salt and pepper. Spread onion/mushroom mixture evenly over potatoes and top with remaining potatoes.

Press down into an even disk shape using a rubber spatula. Season again with salt and pepper. Cook, shaking pan occasionally, until deep golden brown and crisp on the first side, about 7 minutes.

Carefully slide rösti onto large plate. Turn it upside down by setting another plate onto it and inverting the whole thing so rösti is now cooked side up.

Heat remaining 2 Tbsp. oil in skillet and slide rösti back in. Continue cooking, swirling and shaking pan occasionally, until deep golden brown and crisp on the second side, about 7 minutes longer. Slide rösti onto a cutting board. Serve immediately with a side of aioli or mayo for dipping.

Fresh Tomato & Caramelized Onion Jam

A bit time-consuming but worth the effort!

  • 2 medium yellow onions, julienned
  • 1 Tbsp. butter
  • 6 roma tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, finely chopped
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup grated piloncillo or brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. red pepper flakes

Melt butter in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until bottom of saucepan is glazed with pale brown bits, about 5 minutes. Add 2 Tbsp. water and stir bits off the pan with wooden spoon. Don’t let it burn!

Continue cooking and stirring until bits and glaze build up again, about 2 minutes more. Add another 2 Tbsp. water and scrape up browned bits. Repeat cooking, adding water, scraping and stirring until onions are a deep, dark brown and completely softened, about 15 minutes total.

Add tomatoes, sugars, citrus juice, vinegar, salt and red pepper flakes to onions. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and mixture thickens and develops a jammy consistency, about 1–1½ hours. Transfer to airtight containers and store in refrigerator for up to two weeks, or ladle into sterilized jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Why not throw some onions onto the grill at your next barbecue? They're a great side to just about any meat.
Why not throw some onions onto the grill at your next barbecue? They’re a great side to just about any meat.

Grilled Onions

Some might call these the secret to the best tacos

Brush sliced onions with oil and place on hot side of grill.

Cook until charred on both sides and slightly softened, 4-5 minutes per side.

Transfer to cutting board.

Roughly chop or serve whole as an accompaniment to any grilled meat.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. A retired journalist, she has lived in Mexico since 2006.

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