Some people have a favorite car guy, some people have a favorite massage guy, this is my favorite onion guy. He’s what keeps me coming back to Italy. Is he selling tired old onions in an overheated grocery store that plays bad music? No. When he feels up to it, he piles all of his fresh, braided onions into the back of his Ape (Apay) and drives to market. If you’re lucky, he will throw a bunch of pepperoncino into your bag. How is any guy better than that? He’s relaxed and he gives you free stuff.
To make good onions divine, cut off the bottom edge of about eight of them, and stand them in a baking dish. Drizzle them with your best olive oil, a cup of red wine, a sprinkle of sugar, some salt, pepper, and if you have it, a little homemade stock and a thyme sprig. Bake them at 400 degrees uncovered, for twenty five minutes, and then at 300 degrees for half an hour, tightly covered with foil, until they are softened. For the last ten minutes, roast at 425 degrees, so that the liquid reduces a bit and they get a nice brown color. No complaining about changing the temperature of the oven. It’s worth it. Be sure to keep an eye on them so that there is always liquid in the bottom of the pan. Serve them with lentils and a roasted chicken. Have a little salad on the side with salt, olive oil and lemon. How beautiful is that?
Before I started cooking, I don’t know that I ever saw a lentil naked. If we were playing a word game and you had said “lentil” to me, I would have said “soup.” You could have even said “OK, try again: lentil” and I would have said “Progresso”. The lentil is an ancient legume that deserves a little attention. It’s cheap, and and if you know what to do with it, it can be a whole other taste sensation from the one you might expect: boring. In Norcia, which is in the north of Italy, they grow some of the best lentils in the world, called Castellucio, and if you can’t find them, the French lentil, or Puy lentil is also very good. Both of these have a distinct, nutty flavor, and each lentil retains its shape when you cook it. The way to take it to whole new heights is easy. Wash a half a pound (for four to six people) of them really well. Pour them in to a large saucepan with cold, salted water. Add a drizzle of beautiful, extra virgin olive oil, a piece of onion, a garlic clove, and a sprig of thyme. Bring the water to a boil, and then with the cover askew, over a low flame, cook the lentils until they are tender. Drain well, and immediately add more extra virgin olive oil (about three to four Tablespoons), some finely chopped parsely, some torn fresh basil leaves, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a drop (measure it in the cap) of balsamic vinegar. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve these with shavings of Parmesan, dallops of fresh ricotta or slices of fresh mozzarella.
(A note about salt: use kosher salt. Pour the salt into a little bowl, and when you need it, grab a pinch with your finger. You will have a lot more control over how much salt you add.)
Along with your lentils and roasted onions, serve a whole chicken. Season it inside and out with salt, drizzle the top with olive oil, stuff a whole head of garlic (cut in half horizontally first) and a few sprigs of rosemary inside, and roast it in a 375 degree oven. Every fifteen minutes, pour a little cold water over the top, until there are juices in the bottom of the pan, then use that. A three pound chicken should cook for about an hour and a half. A small knife stuck between the leg and the thigh should be hot to your lip. (150 degrees). Don’t overcook it, and BUY ORGANIC.