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Entirely unmannerly

Well. I know it’s May, and mid-May at that, and technically spring and all, so I probably shouldn’t be writing about something so wintry as braised onions. But today it was a cool 56 degrees outside, and anyway, Braised onions. With butter. And Madeira. On pasta. It’s never the wrong season for that, is it? I hope not.

Plus, I hear the weather has been iffy on the East Coast too, and heck, in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s autumn, so it must be chilly. Right? Right. I feel entirely justified.

Last week we had a house guest. His name is Ben, and he is an opera director, and his wife is one of Brandon’s old friends from college. The two of them are moving to Seattle this summer, so he came to scout an apartment, and we put him up in our guest room in the basement, which is really more like a storage room for papers and files and mix tapes from an ex-boyfriend of mine, and more than a little scary, as you can imagine. But he didn’t complain. He was very brave. We barely knew each other, but we had a great week. We sneaked a bottle of bourbon and some chocolate into my purse and went to the opera. We played card games and listened to old Ray Charles, and on his last night in town, Ben cooked steak and mushrooms and opened a bottle of red wine, and we yapped so long and late that Brandon and I had to take a nap the next afternoon. He also found a house to rent only 10 or so blocks from ours, and needless to say, I feel a very fine summer coming on.

But the best part, and the reason why I am yapping so long and late about all this, is that one day, after wandering the neighborhood, Ben came home with a gift for us: a first-edition copy of James Beard’s Beard on Pasta. He’s a great fan of Beard, he confessed, and he had noticed that we only had one of his books, an old, beaten-up copy of The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery that lives on the shelf above our sink. Obviously, it was time that we got another. And, he noted, the braised onion sauce in Beard on Pasta happens to be very good; we really ought to try it.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible to resist a book whose introduction begins with this sort of humble, hopeful, utterly disarming statement: “This is a book about good times to have with pasta.” Especially when it has a swirly, old fashioned illustrated cover. And even more so when it goes on to say such things as this:

We Americans have been intimidated for far too long by other people’s opinions of what we should eat. We’ve been even more intimidated, I think, in the area of table manners and propriety. Pasta is not a mannerly food to eat. And I remember when hostesses in this country were so insecure and etiquette-conscious that they would break up noodles into inch-long pieces before they cooked them, and would choose elbow macaroni over spaghetti so that their guests wouldn’t risk the crime of slurping at the table. I think we’ve gotten over that kind of tearoom niceness, but now there is another worry people have about eating pasta, which is of not doing things in the proper Italian way. They worry about whether the Italians use bowls or plates, and whether it’s proper to serve a soup spoon along with the fork as a help in picking up the strands, and how to avoid slurping up the last inches of long noodles. To which I say that it’s time to stop worrying and start enjoying. (Pages xii-xiii)

To which I say: James Beard, you died entirely too soon. If you were still around, we’d like it very much if you would join us for lunch tomorrow, when we will dig, entirely unmannerly, into the leftovers of some pasta with your braised onion sauce. Which, for the record, is very, very good.

James Beard’s braised onion sauce is essentially that: braised onions. But as you might expect, these onions are special. First, they have a lot of butter. We’re talking about Beard here, people, and the man did not skimp. For two large onions, he calls for two(!) sticks(!) - that’s eight ounces, or HALF A POUND - of butter. Heaven help us all. Ben confided, however, that he had made the sauce with half that amount, and that it had turned out beautifully - and still very buttery. So I took his advice and used only one stick. It coated the onions amply, enough that they could cook slowly and sweetly without the least bit of scorching, and when they were golden and melty, so soft that they slumped into lazy heaps, I stirred in a good splash of Madeira, which simmered with their juices and made a sort of chunky, rustic sauce.

Tossed with hot pasta and topped with salt and Parmesan cheese, it tasted rich and winy, dark and deep, delicious. Delicious enough, even, to make 56 degrees in mid-May feel entirely excusable - until the leftovers are gone, at least.

Braised Onion Sauce
Adapted from Beard on Pasta, by James Beard

James Beard’s commentary on this recipe reads, “Long-cooked onions have a naturally sweet taste. This is a substantial sauce, and I like to serve it with a pasta that has body, something like bows or wagon wheels or wide ribbons or macaroni.” I served it with shells.

8 Tbsp. (4 oz., or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1 ½ lb. yellow onions, halved and sliced about ¼-inch thick
1 Tbsp. sugar
¼ cup Madeira
¾ lb. hot cooked pasta
Salt, for serving
Grated Parmesan, for serving

In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent. Stir in the sugar, reduce the heat to low or medium-low – keep an eye on your stove and see what seems best – and cook the onions very gently for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (Do not cook them too quickly or over too high heat, or they will get dry and papery.) As they cook, they will become meltingly soft and juicy, and they should caramelize to a deep shade of amber. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a couple of minutes to combine, and then add the pasta to the pan. Using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce.

Serve with a generous sprinkling of salt and some grated cheese.

Yield: about 4 servings


Blogger Lucy said...

And a lovely autumn it is in the southern hemisphere, I can tell you.

Beautiful. And as for the cover image on the Beard...lovely.

Fabulous, richly layered post.

11:05 PM, May 12, 2008  
Blogger Dee said...

I've been peeking into your kitchen for so long, I figured it was only polite to say hey. So, erm, Hey!

I've just baked your fabulous buttermilk cookies, and have hidden them from my husband and child.

Love the article in Bon Appetite, and now I'll have to bake a souffle, won't I? How do I hide that, I wonder?

12:11 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Sylvie said...

I love having house guests like that and what a lovely looking meal!

2:32 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Victoria said...

Oh, My. My, my, my. That does sound good, doesn't it? I have that book. In fact, I use the recipe from that book for my fresh pasta, but I have never made this. I certainly will try it now, especially since it sounds like it would also be a fine starter or side dish.

4:26 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Sarah Beam said...

This sounds so incredibly scrumptious that I am scrapping tonight's dinner plans in favor of this recipe. We do love onions. And since it is Vidalia onion season down here in Georgia, hmmm, I wonder how those would do in this...

4:46 AM, May 13, 2008  
OpenID cindc said...

I read a semi-biography of Beard in The United States of Arugula, and he sounds like someone we'd all like to invite over for dinner. What other recipes are in his pasta book? This one sounds delicious, but I'm really trying to not gain weight; it may be 45 degrees and raining here on the east coast, but I'm assuming "bathing suit season" is still right around the corner.

4:47 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger trina said...

Thanks for sharing this recipe. And as always, your writing is so enjoyable.

5:41 AM, May 13, 2008  
Anonymous Sandy said...

Yesterday, it was fifty-some-odd gray, windy degrees here on the East Coast. A perfect day for pasta with a buttery braised onion sauce, for eating or for reading about. Thank you!

6:15 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Seminterrato said...

Great! I have a bag of cipolline in the fridge... I will try your pasta tonight. I can't wait to read your book!

6:21 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger shari said...

hi molly.

i think we have that book at the used bookshop. will have to check and see. the pasta sounds so good. it has even been chilly in the south. hope you and brandon are having a good day. xo

6:24 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Kristen said...

I just started reading your blog yesterday and as crazy as it sounds,...I like you. I would be happy to share a meal with you. There's something about reading and conversing only about food that makes someone feel automatically safe and comforting. Your blog does make me very hungry, so now I will only read it when I have a good chunk of cheese or chocolate in hand! Look forward to seeing your book.

6:56 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Kitchen Vixen said...

Long time lurker, but had to come out of the woodwork to assure you that it is still unseasonably cold in the Midwest. This dish sounds fantastic and I might just make it tonight- do you think anything else could be substituted for Madeira? I haven't got it just lying around...

6:57 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Liz said...

I think you're entirely justified in eating braised anything in May - it's quite the unpredictable month.

And on Beard, I've been loving Julia Child's descriptions of him in My Life in France. A country house in Provence with James Beard in a kimono? I can think of nearly nothing better.

7:20 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger klosekraft said...

I make a similar pasta dish of onions browned down into jam, but with spinach and bleu cheese stirred in at the end. And olive oil instead of butter. Awesome stuff.

7:29 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

This looks lovely Molly. Congratulations on the column in Bon Appétit, the souffle looks delicious.

7:53 AM, May 13, 2008  
Anonymous Moriah said...

I love James Beard and his affection for butter. My parents always referred to his books when they wanted to make something classic, and I've picked up that tradition.

This oniony sauce looks delicious. I think I'll have to try it before summer gets here.

8:06 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Aran said...

I love the idea of sneaking bourbon and chocolate into the opera. How cool is that! Braised onions? Never too warm for that! Sounds simple and delicious. And the book... that's a house guest!!!

8:09 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Bronwyn said...

Sounds amazing - and you can eat the leftovers....yum

8:35 AM, May 13, 2008  
Anonymous edamame said...

I am interested in the food culture of your country. And I support your site. If there is time, please come in my site.
From Japan

8:43 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Aaron said...

Confirmed: it's positively blustery here in Boston, and I certainly wouldn't turn down any braised onions.


8:57 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Randi said...

this looks awesome. when i was a kid i used to hav emy mom cook down an onion in butter and i would just eat it straight. over pasta with some wine sounds like the more adult version :) can't wait to try this.


10:23 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Molly said...

Wow, it sounds like the weather is awful everywhere these days. Bleh. Braised onions for EVERYONE!

And thank you for all your thoughtful words here, guys. You and your comments, you make my day.

To answer a couple of questions:

Sarah Beam, I'll bet this would be great with Vidalias. I'd leave out the sugar, though; you won't need it.

Cindc, the book has all kinds of recipes in it, some more diet-friendly and some less so. And Beard has such a lovely, reassuring way with words that it's worth picking up just to thumb through...

Kitchen Vixen, I'll bet you could substitute some white wine for the Madeira. You'll probably want to let it cook into the onions a bit longer, though, to meld the flavors and soften the wine's tangy edge. Let me know how it turns out...

Liz, the thought of James Beard in a kimono totally slays me. Awesome.

10:46 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger trupeach said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:35 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Michelle said...

This sounds like a good meal anytime of year, and I've been looking for some good meatless meals on rainy Oklahoma nights.

12:04 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger jessicah said...

Coincidentally I was reading some archived recipes yesterday and found the Rigatoni With Five Lilies. I was going to make that for dinner till I saw this post. Now how to decide which onion-y pasta to make?

And, it's even cooled off a bit here in Arizona the last few days, it's only 80 today, and there are even a few tiny clouds in the sky...

12:49 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger katherine said...

It is still quite chilly here in Utah - so much so that I had to drag all of my tomato, basil, oregano and seedlings inside last night. They spent a warm night in the kitchen. So braised onions sound about right and downright delicious.

1:00 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Emily said...

Butter. Onions. Wine. So simple, almost so obvious one would over look it. I certainly have. Even more so, how delicious and utterly brilliant the three become when they agree to dance together in the pan. Already I am imagining how it'll taste. And with pasta? My sweet lord, I'm glad I'm not the dieting type! I have become undone. And I now have dinner for tonight, to boot! Or maybe even lunch, if I decide I can't wait that long. ;D Thank you Molly.

1:07 PM, May 13, 2008  
Anonymous Robin said...

Wonderful recipe and I am absolutely swooning over the polaroid-style picture with the chair in it. Lovely.

1:13 PM, May 13, 2008  
Anonymous Hillary said...

He's so right. We Americans are a bit paranoid about how we imitate the rest of the world.

3:06 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Mountain Mom Alison said...

Hey I heard about you on CBC radio this morning. The segment was all about how we are so obsessed with pictures of food and how great it makes people feel. Great to hear about you on Canadian radio. Good luck with your book!

3:30 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger April said...

MMMMmmm! This I must try!

8:09 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Sarah said...

My stomach just growled longingly. This sounds good no matter the season or temperature.

8:15 PM, May 13, 2008  
Anonymous sarah said...

I have a soft spot for old books with illustrated covers, too. ;)

5:43 AM, May 14, 2008  
Anonymous EB said...

What a fantastic house guest! Can he come stay with me and buy me 1st editions???

10:46 AM, May 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear. Am I the only one who was too horrified at a recipe that calls for a whole stick of butter to read any farther?

10:52 AM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger Rosiecat said...

To Anonymous who is a little frightened of making sauce with a whole stick of butter,

To each her own when it comes to butter, but I think it's definitely possible to make deliciously caramelized onions with less than a full stick of butter. I too am a little apprehensive of such a rich dish, but caramelized onions are fabulous and not to be missed.

So has anyone else tweaked the recipe? Is James Beard rolling over in his grave as we desecrate his work?

11:38 AM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger tony said...

Hi Molly, What an amazing recipe! Will have to try it soon. I thought of the five lillies pasta as well. We are no longer in Oz but have moved to the Netherlands- trying to navigate a new kitchen and trying new ingredients-lots of fun. I will have to try some dutch recipes and pass them on.

All the very best


12:34 PM, May 14, 2008  
Anonymous Caroline said...

I am so glad to see this post... just ate a parsnip chorizo soup last night and wanted to post but thought it was to autumnal (is that a word?!)
Anyway.... down with eating only "seasonal" things. Thank you for mixing it up!!!

1:01 PM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger pen and paper said...

I don't know, I envy you your 56 degrees. I've always been more fond of cooler weather, and this week in the SF Bay Are it's been climbing into the nineties. It's no fun, especially since it's much too hot to try your braised onion sauce until it cools off.

1:52 PM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger Claire said...

Such a pasta dish after a long run...just what I had in mind for today.

And, yes, great book;)

3:08 PM, May 14, 2008  
Anonymous Lydia said...

i made this pasta this evening, after checking out your post yesterday.

oh my!!! is it rich....delicious, but rich! my husband wasn't as crazy for it, but I loved it.

You only need a little though,..as the sweetness and richness *butter* on the sauce is a lot.

but, YUMMY!

Thanks for sharing, Molly! I took some pics of the process, so I may write a post about it in the next few days!!

10:21 PM, May 14, 2008  
Anonymous kosenrufu mama said...

i love onions.... even in may, lovely post!!

1:13 AM, May 15, 2008  
Anonymous Reya said...

What a delicious looking dish. It reminds me a bit of your mujudara, and if it's anything close to that, I'm sure it will be heavenly.

6:55 AM, May 15, 2008  
Blogger LyB said...

That pasta sounds utterly decadent and delicious! Funny how the simplest things can turn out so incredible! Oh, and I love your use of the Polaroids. :)

8:17 AM, May 15, 2008  
Blogger Sarah said...

Molly - This last weekend flew in my parents, mother-in-law and sisters-in-law for my husband's graduation. I made your cheese souffle, a double batch for breakfast and they were all floored! They think I'm a gourmet cook now but I told them it was all your great recipe. I bought a 3 lb. bag of onions to make this sauce and pasta for my cousin and his family this weekend. Thanks for your amazingly good and easy recipes. You make a clueless cook look good!

8:19 AM, May 15, 2008  
Anonymous nina said...

Heavenly. I made this sauce the very day you posted the recipe. We also rescued our long-neglected copy of "Beard on Pasta" from the depths of our substantial cookbook shelf. Didn't feel like making fresh pasta that night, so we served the sauce with some Lemon Pepper Pappardelle from Trader Joe's which was lurking in the pantry. Sounds contrary, but it was perfect with a little shaved parmeggiano reggiano. Your method works beautifully.

8:56 AM, May 15, 2008  
Blogger Sarah said...

Thank you for writing so beautifully! I recently started reading your blog after reading you in Bon Appetit. Reading your commentary is like having a good meal: I'm always sorry when I've finished, and I always look forward to next time.

12:14 PM, May 15, 2008  
Anonymous michelle @ TNS said...

i want to have fun with homemade pasta!

onions and butter are two of my most favoritist things ever. this is so on the list for the next too-chilly spring night we have here.

1:02 PM, May 15, 2008  
Blogger Julie said...

Yum! I have an unwavering devotion to butter, and Beard is great.

2:00 PM, May 15, 2008  
Blogger Food and Field said...


5:53 PM, May 15, 2008  
Anonymous Dara said...

I thought of you today, Molly, as I strolled around my neighborhood pilfering the first of the nefles from my neighbors. The trees are heavy under weight of thousands of loquats all about to be ripe at once, and they'll unbearably go to waste. Too bad you're not here to join me. You might like Oakland's 90 degree weather, too. But I've been finding it to be almost unbearably hot and sunny, and I'm actually missing the cool moodiness winter. I know, poor, poor me. ;)

11:13 PM, May 15, 2008  
OpenID Tricia said...

As soon as I saw this post, I knew I was going to make the recipe. We had it for dinner last night, and will be having it again sometime (many times) in the future. I love caramelized onions; they are so sweet and rich and delicious- beautifully complimented by the Madeira.

6:19 AM, May 16, 2008  
Blogger woof nanny said...

What an incredible post. I think too many Americans have forgotten the magic that comes with dining and conversation with friends. Meals should be filled with joy and memories, and fine introductions to summer.

10:36 AM, May 16, 2008  
Blogger woof nanny said...

I was inspired to post about this today

11:17 AM, May 16, 2008  
Anonymous dänika said...

Oh, Molly! I just made this for dinner, and it is absolutely lovely. I keep wanting to go back for just. one. more. bite.

Thank you so much!

6:02 PM, May 16, 2008  
Anonymous sister AE said...

I have that cookbook and I love it - especially the chapter on "small saucings" that I use for inspiration when I want something quick and easy.

11:41 AM, May 17, 2008  
Blogger Lina said...

mmm sounds great!

8:32 PM, May 17, 2008  
Blogger Antonio Tahhan said...

Ithaca has been dipping down into the high 30s this past week so I think this weather definitely calls for some of that delicious pasta!

8:53 AM, May 18, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

looks yummy - does anyone have any thoughts as to how spicy turkey sausage might contribute or would you recommend leaving well enough alone??

1:31 PM, May 18, 2008  
Blogger Molly said...

Anonymous, I am a devout sausage lover, but in this case, I think I'd skip it. Or keep it on the side. I'm afraid its spiciness would cover up the sweet, delicate flavor of the caramelized onions...

5:36 PM, May 18, 2008  
Blogger さくら said...

Nice to meet you,
I'm from Japan.
It became reference very much!!
Thank you  (^o^)/

Indeed I am sorry,
Please link to this site.

3:46 AM, May 19, 2008  
Anonymous nicolette said...

hi molly,

funny, this was the singular recipe that jumped off the pages of jamies italy, for me anyhow. the minestrone was revolutionary for my sister! in january we had to go to london, for a sad occassion, but, we acquired jamie's new book, equally as divine as italy. highly recommended!

9:00 PM, May 20, 2008  
Blogger amisha said...

yum. yum. yum! i love slow-cooked onions so very much. and given that it was 45 degrees when i left NY on monday... well. this sounds just about right for my sunday night dinner when i return :) xo

9:09 AM, May 23, 2008  
Blogger Angelique said...

Hi Orangette! Greetings from Orange, California. We are having the craziest weather (tornadoes, hail, floods, snow, in MAY! in CALIFORNIA!). This recipe is perfect for a cozy night spent figuring out how to relight the pilot on the gas heater, thanks!

11:04 AM, May 23, 2008  
Anonymous Mia said...

Dear Molly;

I also came upon your column in Bon Appetit and was at once drawn to you as a kindred soul... I grew up admiring Julia and James- and used their books as my first bibles along with the Joy of Cooking,

I am having the onions with white wine and Vidalias- and trying 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 butter-

Thank you for sharing!

3:46 PM, May 23, 2008  
OpenID nikkipolani said...

Molly, I made this recipe over the weekend and loved it - except for the over-the-top richness. I may try it again with half as much butter. Thanks for your delicious descriptions.

1:04 PM, May 27, 2008  
Anonymous Mike said...

nice post

2:43 PM, June 18, 2008  
Anonymous Shae said...

This pasta sauce is so tasty. I made it for dinner two nights ago and have been eating the buttery leftovers for my lunches. It'll have to be a rare treat for me, but I do love this.

I'm completely in love with your writing and your blog as well and have just subscribed to Bon Appetit because I heard of your article. Yours is the first blog I ever stumbled across and I have loved reading about your life and love of food. I've also secured for myself a copy of your cookbook and I just can't wait to get my hands on it!

Oops - I think I may have just revealed myself as a bit of an Orangette fanatic. Don't think me crazy...

6:46 AM, July 11, 2008  
Blogger Molly said...

Oh! Shae, you're too nice! Thank you. (And don't worry, I don't think you're crazy.)

5:44 PM, July 11, 2008  
Blogger Emily said...

Finally got around to making this tonight, with a side of roasted butternut squash (with garlic and allspice) and stirfried swiss chard.
Well, good Lord, but I did wait to long to have it!
I kept sneaking bites as I was putting away the leftovers, which is always a good/bad sign.

7:26 PM, January 04, 2009  
Blogger Rosasharne said...

I must have had this post knocking around in my head for months, because I just saw an edition of Beard on Pasta at the Strand the yesterday and it all came flooding back. I bought the book and read it immediately--it is just so sweet and hopeful. Gives me dreams of lazy sweet late spring days and winter afternoons, once this hell-hole of obligations passes a little. Come visit anytime, Molly, you clearly know how to host and be a houseguest.

12:03 PM, February 09, 2009  

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