Monday, October 17, 2011

Clove Scented Onions


My two favourite restaurant names are the New Wind, which serves Thai and Vietnamese food to its lucky patrons in Windsor; and the Sha Tin, serving up quality Chinese takeaway in Heathmont. Lately, after a spate of particularly bad cooking, I thought of the latter; it felt like more than one meal originated in the Sha Tin kitchen.

I admit this only because three people who really should know better have told me recently that they think cooking for me is intimidating. So I'd like to share some home truths.

I started this blog partly because churning out countless meals day after day for largely ungrateful small children had robbed me of any joy in the act of cooking. I thought that writing about the good things we ate might help sustain me through the infuriating claim I hear most days: 'no like it'.

There are still many times when I am careless, misguided or just plain uninspired in the kitchen. Last week was particularly bad, like something out of a fairy tale. I suspect I offended an evil spirit, because everything I touched turned to sand.

One night, dinner was well underway. The kids were bickering and generally so annoying that I hid in the laundry with the laptop and checked my emails while dinner cooked. I was returned to earth by the smell of burning. I managed to salvage a third of the beans, which I served as 'smoky'; but all the vegies, even the mustard greens I had picked earlier from the garden, had to go to the great compost heap in the sky.

A day or two later, I bought 'cheap' bananas to make smoothies. We had some rice milk in the fridge, so I whizzed it up with the bananas, some cocoa and a little almond meal, and poured each child a lovely foaming cup. Each child took a great gulp... each angelic face contorted demonically, and each pair of legs hotfooted it to the bathroom where I heard a frenzy of spitting, gargling, and tooth brushing. And that is how I learned that rice milk doesn't last more than three days in the refrigerator, and when it goes off, it seems to smell fine. It just tastes absolutely mouth-searingly gut-wrenchingly disgusting.

I also served up mouldy hommus; chicory so bitter it turned my stomach; and rocks of undercooked beetroot. Even the meals that weren't unmitigated disasters were largely uninspired, consisting of, for the most part, what one friend calls 'adulterated beans'.

Yet there have been glimmers of hope. The other day I had potatoes and sweet red onions from a local farm in the pantry. So I decided on an easy meal: baked potatoes and caramelized onions, with salad and adulterated beans on the side.

I wanted the onions to be rich, so I cooked them in a good slosh of olive oil and flavoured them with cloves. The result was unctuous and deeply flavoured, a perfect match for the mealy potatoes.

How is it that something so absolutely simple can be so incredibly delicious?, I wondered – and it was so easy, even I didn't stuff it up.

And yet in the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that, in the long run, even this meal wasn't entirely successful. It may have been delicious; it may have been easy; it may have been economical, but eating a multitude of fried onions has some after effects: this is not the thing for date night. Rather, it's a meal to be enjoyed in the privacy of one's own home, without guests, and preferably when you're happy to leave a few windows open. While it's not Sha Tin, New Wind just about covers it.

Potatoes Stuffed with Clove Scented Onions

- 4 baking potatoes
- 4 large red onions
- ½ tsp ground cloves, or more to taste
- 4 tbs olive oil
- good salt

Heat the oven to 200°C. Scrub the potatoes, dry them and prick them with a fork. Place them directly onto the oven rack. Leave to bake for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the skins are papery and the insides perfectly cooked.

Halve the onions stem to stern, then slice them into half moons ½ cm wide.

Warm the oil in a wide heavy based skillet set over medium heat. Add the cloves, the onions, and a hefty pinch of salt and stir well to ensure the onions are evenly coated. Turn down the heat and leave them to cook for thirty minutes or so, until they are a dark golden brown. Do not let them dry out. You may need to shove them around with a wooden spoon from time to time to prevent them from sticking.

Serve piled into the baked potatoes, or tossed through pasta, draped over steak or anywhere else you can think of. A tangle of peppery rocket on the side is a nice complement.

(Local: potatoes, onions, olive oil. Not so local: cloves, salt.)

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