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Know your onions

Leah Eskin

Home on the Range

July 15, 2012

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The story begins with "Once upon a time;" the recipe begins with "Onions."

Both have the same effect: to set the mood. Onions get right to work scenting the kitchen savory, flavoring the oil sweet, deepening the color and complexity of the dish as it unfurls.

Not that every opening line reads alike. The recipe may suggest a mere sweat: low heat until limp. It may insist on caramelize: low heat all the way to a deep, sticky sweet. It may specify the saute: medium heat, until golden. Or it may brave brown: medium heat until crisp — usually reserved for liver-and-onion duty. Then there's the deep-fry, best known to the onion ring.

I had assumed the onion spectrum ran from pale to sticky to crisp. An assumption, like most, that proved clumsy.

I was enlightened while cooking curry with friends. The recipe I'd been assigned called for onions, brown-fried. Which called for me to look perplexed. And, giving in, to read the instructions.

Brown-fry is unique — or so the cookbook claimed — to Indian cuisine. It sizzles in the zone between saute and deep-fry. Compared with browning, the technique calls for more oil — about 2 tablespoons per cup of onions. It calls for more heat — a medium-high flame. And it calls for more attention — constant stirring until the onions turn a deep crisp/tender brown.

It's a lovely method and yielded a lovely stew. It's good to know that even "Once upon a time" can be refreshed. And refreshing.

Indian lamb and cashew stew

Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 1 hour 15 minutes
Serves: 6

Ingredients:
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
2 pounds ground lamb
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
3 teaspoons garam masala or ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 bay leaves
11/2 teaspoons coarse salt
21/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (or 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes)
½ cup water
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, including liquid
3 tablespoons cashew butter (recipe follows)
About 2 cups cooked rice

For garnish:
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 green chili, chopped
Roasted cashews (recipe below)

Brown-fry: Heat oil in a large, heavy pot set over medium-high heat. Add onions. Cook, stirring regularly, until caramel brown, about 25 minutes.

Brown:
Meanwhile, in a wide skillet, cook lamb over medium-high heat, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 12 minutes. Drain in a colander. Set aside.

Season:
Add garlic and ginger to the onions, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add garam masala, coriander, turmeric, red pepper, bay leaves and salt; stir 1 minute.

Thicken:
Add fresh tomatoes. If using canned, run tomatoes and their juices through the food processor first. Add browned lamb, chickpeas (and their liquid) and cashew butter. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until thick (like chili), about 45 minutes. Stir often.

Serve:
Add more salt and ground red pepper if need be. Heap rice onto one side of a serving bowl, lamb stew on the other. Garnish. Enjoy.

Provenance:
Adapted from Julie Sahni's "Classic Indian Cooking," by way of my friend Elizabeth.

Roasted cashews and cashew butter:
Measure 2/3 cup cashews into a small cast-iron pan. Add 1 teaspoon butter, 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Slide pan into a 400-degree oven and roast, shaking now and then, until deep brown and crisp all the way through, about 11 minutes. Set aside half the roasted nuts for garnish. Run the rest through the food processor or blender until mixture resembles smooth peanut butter.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at leahreskin@aol.com.