Here’s another favorite old dinner from “The Way Back Machine” files. "Caramelized Onion Pasta". It's been so long ago that I first made this dish, I don’t even remember where I found the recipe, though I did remember how good it was (and is). It’s also a great meal for weeknights, since it can be pulled together in less than a half an hour, yet it still tastes like something that cooked for much, much longer. Another plus, it reheats fairly well the next day if you have leftovers. And yet another plus, it’s vegetarian-friendly. The key to the dish is to take just a bit of time to get a good, deep caramelization on the onions, and of course, to use a wine that you would be willing to drink.
You’re going to need some onions, of course, some red wine (a Cabernet works very well), dried basil and thyme, balsamic vinegar and some pasta. Any kind of short pasta will work; bow-ties, penne, rotini, even elbows would be fine. I used orechiette because that’s what was in the pantry. Sorry, no class photo of the line-up, I think I was in too much of a hurry to eat that night !
Start by peeling and thinly slicing some onions. You’ll need about a pound and a half for four servings.
Take a look at how I sliced those onions up. Notice that I went from the top of the onion to the bottom, or what’s called “pole-to-pole”. For applications like this (or French onion soup), where you want nice, distinct strands of onion, this method works the best. Get the slices as thin as possible, and you may have to angle the knife in a bit on the bottom edge as you work in order to keep the slices uniform.
Throw the sliced onions into a nonstick pan with some olive oil. Sauté them over high heat until they start to brown, like so:
Once they start to brown, turn the heat down, and some salt, sugar and the dried herbs. This is one instance where I think dried herbs work better than fresh. The long, slow caramelization brings out the earthiness of the thyme and basil, whereas with fresh, the bright flavor would be lost.
The salt is going to draw moisture out of the onions, which will help them get tender. The sugar helps with the caramelization process. It’s not enough to make the dish “sweet”, but it will offset the onion’s bite a bit.
Stir that around a little, and then cook over medium heat for 10 minutes or so, stirring often. You want all the onions to get nice and deeply browned. While the onions are caramelizing, bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Salt the water when it’s boiling (but I don’t have to tell you that).
Onions at the start:
About halfway through, but not there just yet:
Aaaand that’s what I’m talkin’ about baby ! Use the color of the onions as your guide for the timing, not the clock. It may take a bit longer than 10 minutes to get them where you want them to be.
Actually, these could have even gone a bit longer, but they’ll cook a bit more with the liquids. Reduce the heat to low, add some water, the wine, vinegar and some pepper, stir that around and cover while your pasta cooks.
Cook your pasta until al dente, and drain, reserving some of the precious pasta water. I’ve gotten into the habit of always saving some of that hot, seasoned, starchy water when I cook pasta, regardless of whether the recipe suggests it or not. If the sauce needs a bit of help to come together, or is a little too thick and gloppy (very technical cooking term that, “gloppy”), a splash of that hot water will bring it right to where it should be.
Add the pasta to the pan with the onions, and toss to combine and distribute the goodies.
Another golden tip is to let the pasta simmer together with the sauce for a few seconds. It works especially well when you pull the pasta a bit before al dente, and then let it finish in the sauce. It melds the flavors together and seems to almost infuse the elements of the sauce into the pasta itself. It really becomes more than “pasta with sauce”.
Plate your pasta and sprinkle with some grated Parmesan cheese, and sit down to a quick, savory, low stress meal. Vegetarian friendly, too ! (Don’t get too used to seeing that from me, I’m a hard-core carnivore….) Some chopped fresh herbs over the top are a nice little accent at the end. This is where you DO want the fresh stuff. Basil, parsley or thyme would all be good. The herbs are optional, but the cheese is not.
Here’s the quantities and ingredient list.
Caramelized Onion Pasta
2 tblsp. olive oil
1&1/2 pounds onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. dried basil leaves
1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/4C Cabernet Sauvignon or other red wine
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tblsp. balsamic vinegar
12 oz. dried, short pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving
Fresh herbs (basil, parsley, thyme would all be good) for serving (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Heat the oil in a large, nonstick skillet. Add the sliced onions and sauté over high heat until onions begin to brown in spots, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat to medium, and add the salt, sugar and dried herbs. Cook, stirring frequently, until all the onions are uniformly dark brown and caramel-colored, about 10 minutes. Add the water, vinegar and wine, stir and cover and let stand, over very low heat, while the pasta cooks.
Cook pasta according to package directions, and drain, reserving some pasta water. Add drained pasta to the skillet with the onions, and toss to combine. Add reserved water as desired to bring to a nice consistency. Divide onto 4 warm serving plates, and sprinkle with grated Parmesan and chopped fresh herbs, if desired.