Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer — not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Inspired by the column, the Big Little Recipes cookbook is available now. Like, right now.
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An onion knows when it's in danger. That's why when you cut it with a knife, or blitz it with a food processor, or pulverize it with a grater, it fights back. It wields sulfur, absorbed from the soil, as a weapon, as its own knife or food processor or grater, sharp enough to make you weep.
A skillet and stove change all this. "The various sulfur compounds react with each other and with our substances to produce a range of characteristic flavor molecules," explains Harold McGee in "On Food and Cooking." With fat, heat, and patience, the sharpness in onions softens into something as sweet as candy.
But who said sharpness was a bad thing? An insult is only an insult if you interpret it as an insult.
One of our community's most beloved recipes is James Beard's Braised Onion Sauce, which starts with a pound and a half of onions and almost a stick and a half of butter. You cook the onions for an entire hour, until they become unrecognizable, closer to jam than anything else.
Unsurprisingly, another one of Beard's most iconic recipes also revolves around onions. But in this case, they aren't cooked for an hour. They aren't cooked at all. In the dish, which he swiped from his business partners Irma Rhode and Bill Rhode, they're sliced into slivers and turned into tea sandwiches.
Especially with onions, cooked and raw are opposites that couldn't be farther apart — or closer together. Like Lindsay Lohan in "The Parent Trap" or Vanessa Hudgens in "The Princess Switch." If you look closely, it's just the same actor in a different outfit with different makeup and a different accent.
Of course, that is what makes it so impressive.
These buttery noodles take a similar approach. You sauté an armload of onions until they relent into savory, soothing mush. Then, just before you sit down at the end of a long day, as you are tossing pasta with butter and more butter, you add a couple spoonfuls of minced raw onion, brash and reviving, like a splash of vinegar.
It is not one or the other. It is both. And isn't this what all of us want? For someone to see us — really see us — for all our prettiness and ugliness and want to stick around anyway? To think our glossy, sautéed sweetness is beautiful. And that our stinging, rude sharpness is beautiful.
Albeit swift enough for a weeknight, this dish showcases the full personality of the onion. The one that only people who really love it get to see.
Recipe: Onion-Buttered Noodles
- 1 3/4 pounds yellow onions
- 6 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature, divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces long pasta, such as fettuccine or pappardelle
- 1 to 2 garnishes (optional)
- Halve, peel, and thinly slice the onions. Mince just enough sliced onion to yield 2 tablespoons, then set that aside.
- Add 2 tablespoons of butter to a large skillet over medium heat. Once melted, add the sliced onions. Generously season with salt and pepper. Cook until golden and jammy, 25 to 35 minutes, stirring often and lowering the heat as needed to avoid scorching; you can add a splash of water every so often if needed to deglaze if the onions threaten to burn. When they're done, drop the heat to as low as possible to keep warm.
- Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and set over high heat to come to a boil. When the water is boiling, generously season with salt, then add the pasta. Cook according to the package instructions until al dente.
- With the skillet still over low heat, use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to the skillet with the onions (and don't drain that water). Add the minced onion, remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, and ¼ cup of pasta water, then toss everything together. Add more pasta water if needed to reach a sauce consistency you love, keeping in mind that it'll thicken as it sits. Toss in or sprinkle with a bonus or two, if you'd like.