Lettuce Eat Local: Getting into a bit of an onion pickle

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Amanda Miller
Columnist
Lettuce Eat Local

It beckoned irresistibly in the evening light, that glass pitcher of bright pink liquid on the drinks table. The little girl with the ponytail and the thirsty eyes carefully poured herself a cup, and brought it up to her lips for a sip. 

I could see the whole thing happening from a distance, yet due to the nursing baby in my arms, was powerless to stop it — or at least that’s my slightly sadistic excuse. Brian was right there refilling the mint tea pitcher; he could have stopped her, but I’m sure it was his similarly morbid curiosity that silenced his restraining voice. We watched with bated breath.

Because someone had moved the pink pitcher from its intended location and extremely helpful label, and instead of being the deliciously fruity beverage I’m sure she expected, this was actually onion juice. 

Yes, onion juice, or rather, pickled red onion brine. 

Brian said her face immediately reflected the horror that seems appropriate for a child expecting a sweet swallow and getting a vinegary, salty gulp. I don’t know who she was, but she has good parents, because though I’m sure she felt compelled to spew out and toss the offending drink, she politely controlled her reaction and gingerly carried the cup away with her, eyes wide and still reeling in shock. She managed to preserve both her own dignity and drinks-server Brian’s, perhaps sacrificing her tastebuds in the process. 

As they say, don’t drink the Kool-Aid. 

The problem is, some people were. Voluntarily, nonetheless! Which is why it was out there in the first place; people in the kitchen kept sampling the onion juice and being surprised at how gorgeous and (purportedly) good it was. Acidic, salty, a little sweet, and very oniony: basically red-onion-flavored gatorade, full of electrolytes and bonus anthocyanins. What’s not to like? 

Well, for me, actually a lot. I can’t eat raw onions; I don’t have an allergy, but my stomach doesn’t digest the certain sugar in the allium family, so raw onions, shallots, chives, etc and all forms of garlic are out for me. I also now associate their flavor with feeling bad, so while I didn’t mind making the pickled onions, drinking the juice sounds like a particular level of torture to me. 

But that’s clearly not what everyone thought, as the “onion gatorade” pitcher was almost empty by the time the little girl came up to it. This was all taking place as I was catering an annual several-hundred-person farm party evening at a local dairy farm, and what I had anticipated being plenty of pickled onions ran out last year in minutes. We played it real safe this year, mandolining and quick-pickling almost fifty pounds of onions. (Thank goodness we made the mint tea afterwards, giving the prep room a more refreshing, less eye-burning and nostril-clearing, aroma.)

We did not run out this year. But we sure went through a good quantity; people loaded up their taco bowls with the tangy, crunchy, hot pink onion rings. Pickled onions are a surprisingly versatile garnish, adding color, flavor, and texture to anything from sandwiches to salads to charcuterie boards. Memorial Day marked the start of grilling season, and pickled onions want to be at every cookout. They are quick and easy to make, requiring little time and few ingredients, and keep for weeks in the fridge. 

Oh, and did I mention they also provide a bonus great beverage? Just maybe make sure you label it. Or don’t. 

 

Pickled Red Onions

You can’t have pickled red onion juice without making pickled red onions, and while the juice can only maintain its appeal for a few sips, the onions can be your friend for a long time (although you might lose a few other friends in the process, depending on the resultant breath situation). Keep a jar at the ready in the fridge and you’ll be surprised how many occasions you’ll find to pull them out — and not just to gaze at their beauty or trick your guests with the Kool-Aid. This is a great base recipe, but you can play with using apple cider vinegar, or honey, or adding fresh thyme, or whatever. 

Prep tips: a mandoline makes majestically quick work of getting evenly thin slices, but as always, I remind you to use proper caution and ensure those slices are only onions and not fingers.

2 pounds red onions, sliced thinly into rings

1 ½ cups water

1 ½ cups white vinegar

⅓ cup white sugar

1 ½ tablespoons fine salt

Put onions in a widemouth glass jar(s) or stainless steel bowl. Heat remaining ingredients just to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour carefully over the onions, adding a little water/vinegar if you need more liquid to cover the slices. Let cool before refrigerating (in a tightly lidded container). 

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