Tag Archives: onions


Continuing the idea from the last post that less expensive but still tasty dishes are particularly appreciated at present, here is another recipe from the first year of the previously mentioned column, along with a bit of background on the ingredients — because I’m a food historian and can’t help myself.

As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, onions were considered to be virtually a panacea. Well, they weren’t too far from being right — onions are antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, contain a powerful antioxidant (quercetin) which also acts as a sedative, and can lower your cholesterol. (Unfortunately, for some people, they can also aggravate heartburn or cause gas.) The greatest benefit is to be gained from raw onions, but even cooked onions have most of these beneficial properties to some degree.

Onions probably got into Central Africa by way of Egypt. As early as 3000 B.C., Egyptian traders were bartering seeds, tools, agricultural knowledge and domesticated animals with tribes in Eritrea and Somalia, in exchange for frankincense and myrrh.

Africa would have to wait another 4,500 years for the hot red peppers and white beans used in this recipe. All chilies/hot peppers come from the New World, but almost everyone else in the world enthusiastically embraced the “violent fruit,” as Columbus called it, once it was introduced by early traders. White beans (most commonly navy beans or great northern beans in this recipe) are also indigenous to the Americas–along with all the other members of the family known as common or haricot beans (so kidney beans, pintos, black turtle beans, and even green beans).

So African cuisine combines ingredients that stretch back for millennia with those that have been available for a mere 500 years. This recipe for fried beans is from Burundi, in Central Africa, and I think it’s about the easiest thing you can do with beans and still produce a dish that is really delicious.

2 cups dry white beans
boiling water
1 tsp. chicken or vegetable bouillon
1/2 cup cooking oil
3 large onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
dried hot red pepper to taste (at least 1/4 tsp. crushed)

Wash and sort the beans. Put beans in large saucepan and cover with 4-6 cups boiling water. Boil 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let soak 1 hour or more. Return beans to stove. (As always, if beans cause you intestinal distress, you can drain and rinse beans after they soak, which will reduce “side effects” of bean consumption. Then replace soaking water with fresh.) Add bouillon to water, and simmer beans until tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Heat oil in a 12-inch saucepan. Add onions and garlic to hot oil and cook until onions are transparent and soft. Drain cooked beans and add to onions; cook for 5 minutes. Add salt and hot pepper to taste. Mix well. Serves 8-10 as a side dish, 6-8 as a main course.

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Cebollas Encuridas

In Mexico’s Yucatan, pickled red onions—cebollas encuridas— are served at almost every meal, appearing as soon as you sit down, along with the salsa. They are a delightful and delicious way to enhance foods, from simply piling them on tortilla chips to using them to enhance a dish. I came to be fairly addicted to them when I toured the Yucatan a few years ago, and I now make them regularly.

You must use sour orange juice. It’s completely different from sweet orange juice—more like lime juice. Straight vinegar would be better than using sweet orange juice, but look for sour orange in the Hispanic- or Mexican-foods aisle of your grocery store, or check at a Hispanic grocery store. It’s worth the effort, because the flavor really is different if you try substitutes for the sour orange.

And just so you know, these are good with more than just Mexican food. Almost anywhere you’d use pickles, relish, or onions can be enhanced with this flavorful condiment. Enjoy.

Cebollas Encuridas
Yucatecan Pickled Onions

1 large red onion, thinly sliced
boiling water, to cover
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup sour orange juice, or to cover
1/2 tsp dried oregano, preferably Mexican oregano Continue reading

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The Allium genus includes some of my favorite purveyors of flavor, including garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions, and onions. It is hard to imagine cooking without these fragrant, vibrant plants. And in fact, no one has ever really had to, because wild members of the allium genus grow worldwide. That’s why, even though onions as we know them arrived in the Americas with European explorers, we still ended up with Native American words that refer to a place where wild onions were causing a stink: the Potawatomi word checagou, which means “place that stinks of wild onions,” and the Menominee word shika’ko, which means “skunk place,” which actually referred to the smell of the wild onions. We’re not sure which of these words was the derivation of Chicago, but the point is, there were a lot of wild onions growing here long before domesticated onions made it over with European settlers. Continue reading

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