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The neat, workmanlike, and—let’s face it—really cute bunches of onions stopped me in my tracks. Vince D’Attolico, delighted at my reaction, unloaded the last of the crates from his Hudson Valley farm and stood back from his stand at Union Square to gauge the overall effect. “It’s a Dutch variety I haven’t tasted for twenty years,” he explained. I cradled a bunch in my hand.

“They are sweet onions, and fantastic on the grill,” Vince continued. “All you need to do is take off the rubber band.” He grinned. “Grill them ten minutes on one side, flip them over, ten minutes. Give them another ten or so, then just pop them out of their skins.” Sold. I scooped up a couple of bunches and, a good half hour later, after I’d had a chance to think about what dinnertime looked like for the week ahead, I doubled back and bought more. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Stumbling across an unexpected ingredient and having it expand your options and, at the same time, sharpen your focus is, for me, one of the most exciting things about cooking. Grilled onions, for instance, are familiar to every backyard chef, but regular storage varieties require peeling, slicing into rounds, and, often, running a skewer through each round horizontally, to keep the dratted things together. Not only is this fiddly work (making kebab-size chunks is no better), but grilled onion rounds can get too burnt-tasting for me. I am not a big fan of char, so I immediately embraced the thought of letting the smoke and heat work their magic on whole onions, small enough* to cook quickly and still clad in their protective jackets.

Those grilled late that afternoon exceeded expectations, pushing burgers and portobellos over the top. When I tucked the knobbly leftovers into the refrigerator, I was reminded of the sturdy little wooden blocks I loved as a child. Now, as then, I couldn’t wait to take them out and build something. This time of year, when summer feels particularly precious, I’m not interested in ambitious or clever dishes, just straightforward food with clean, well-built lines. And these onions were going to simplify my life, not complicate it.

The next evening was a cakewalk. With a pot of rice working on a back burner, I slipped some onions out of their plain brown wrappers and quartered them. Before discarding the skins, I inspected them for the occasional glob of caramelized juices—pure flavor, in other words. Easily pried off with a fingernail, they followed a good-sized chunk of butter into a pan and dissolved after a few stirs and scrapes with a wooden spoon. This technique, by the way, is called deglazing, and you probably do it all the time, without even thinking. It’s the key to a great pan sauce.

I carved the kernels off two ears of corn and deposited them in the butter. Soon, they were joined by a generous handful of cherry tomatoes. It wasn’t until they started to split that I added salt, pepper, and the onions. By the time the rice was done, the sweet, smoky onions had hottened. I spooned the stuff over mounds of rice and had dinner on the table in practically no time. In retrospect, I suppose I could have started things off with crisp-fried bacon, for crumbling over our helpings at the last minute, but I dunno—we didn’t miss the meat.

A couple of nights ago, though, a slim packet of prosciutto was the first thing I reached for when I opened the refrigerator. Sam and I had both walked through the door late, tired, and hungry, and assembly, rather than cooking, was in order. Tomatoes, cut into chunks and set out in a bowl, dressed with nothing more than salt, pepper, and olive oil. Big forkfuls of smoked bluefish, from Nodine’s Smokehouse. And open-faced sandwiches on long slices of baguette: the remains of a fennel-arugula salad, nicely wilted in mustard vinaigrette, a substantial layer of thinly sliced prosciutto, and more onions, which still packed a potent mix of lush, smoke-tinged tenderness and juicy crunch.

Just took stock, and there are only a couple of small—very small—onions left. They look awfully wrinkly and forlorn, but on the inside—wow, we’re in fine shape. This day has been extremely long, and we need nourishment fast. “An omelet!” Sam said. Of course. They do that wonderful one, with sweated onions and vinegar (“What sort?” says Sam, his head already in the cupboard) in Lyon, but this is no time to look it up; let’s keep moving.

Cut the onions into slivers and heat them until hot but not browned. Get some toast toasting. Stir the onions into the beaten eggs, and cook the omelet (crucial bit: hot small pan). Chicken out and let Sam do the flipping. The instant the omelet hits the plate, I add a little butter to the pan; when it starts to brown, it’s time to swirl in a splash of red-wine vinegar—golly, that smells fabulous—then drizzle over the eggs.

We scrupulously divide the omelet and eat, feet up, in front of the television. “That was the last of the onions, then?” Sam asked. “If there are any left, they’d be good on pizza.”

* I’ll bet cipolline, which are readily available, would work well, too. Can’t wait to try them and see.


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