Raw onion: a lot like Marmite, it is a very divisive ingredient in any dish. Alliums in general are used to impart flavour to a wide range of food, both raw and cooked, but they are pungent and packed with sulphur compounds that make you cry and give you bad breath.
There is a growing trend amongst lunch venues to put red onion in a variety of salads and sandwiches almost everywhere I have been or travelled to. Why do they do this? Apart from making me really thirsty, raw onions are a little antisocial, especially if you have to return to breathe onion fumes all over your colleagues, and anyone that you happen to be having a meeting with that afternoon. I also think it is really lazy. There are several easy ways to avoid this, without compromising on flavour or crunch.
If I am going to be using shallots in a salad dressing, or taboulleh, I address the problem by soaking them in the vinegar of the dressing before I add the rest of the ingredients. A good 10 minutes in the vinegar will reduce the affect of sulphur compounds, as well as develop the flavour.
Similarly, if I am going to make guacamole, a 10 minute pre-soak of the onion in the lime juice sorts out the problem of onion breath. It really isn’t difficult, and in reality doesn’t add loads of time to your prep, you can do it first, then get on with another element of your salad.
I have been eating a lot of salads, not just because of the 52 Week Salad Challenge, but also because they are healthy, low in fat and they are a great way of tasting the best of the seasons.
In the past, I have omitted the raw onion in a salad, but there are a couple that really are made better by the crunch and flavour of onion, but I don’t benefit from the unquenchable thirst I get when I’ve eaten them in any amount.
Panzanella is one of my favourite salads, but it loses a lot by leaving out the onion. Keeping the onion slices as crunchy as possible is also integral to the necessary contrasts of the dish too. For this reason, soaking it in the vinegar is not the best way forward, as this will reduce the crispness of the bite a little.
I am sharing my recipe for panzanella, because it contains the easiest tip for avoiding onion breath, it’s a fantastic salad, and it uses up leftover bread. What’s not to like?
This will serve two people on its own, or 5 as a side dish
4 thick slices of stale bread, cut into large cubes
400 g tomatoes, different varieties, if you can get hold of them. They need to be ripe, and at room temperature.
½ cucumber, in large dice
1 red onion, finely sliced
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp blackberry vinegar, or red wine vinegar if you don’t have blackberry
1 tbsp capers
6-8 anchovy fillets (optional)
salt and pepper
15-20 basil leaves
If the bread you are using is not stale (although this salad is much better with stale bread), you can dry out the bread in a low oven, or one that has been turned off from cooking something else.
Chop and slice the tomatoes. If you have pretty heirloom varieties, slice some of these and set aside as a decorative touch later. I was using a mix of varieties, which included marmande, plum, tigerella and black Russian. I put the red ones into the salad, and sliced the tigerella and black Russian for the plate.
Combine the cucumber, tomatoes and bread in a large bowl, and set aside.
Cover the onion slices in boiling water, and leave them there for about 2-3 minutes. This removes the sulphur from the onion, but does not cook it, so you still get the crunch, but none of the bad breath. Drain the onion, and leave to drip while you make the dressing.
Whisk together the oil, vinegar, capers and the chopped anchovy fillets. Adjust the acidity or oil to taste, but bear in mind that the tomatoes are also going to add acidity. Season well with salt and pepper.
Add the onions and the dressing to the salad, and mix well. Set aside to allow the flavours to develop for at least a couple of hours, or overnight in the fridge, if you can, but serve it at room temperature.
Just before you serve, roughly tear the basil leaves and mix them in.
If you like, you can add punchy salad leaves, like spinach, mizuna and rocket to add extra bulk. Do this when you add the basil, or the dressing will cook them.
This is a great salad to serve at a barbecue, or summer picnic, or as a side dish. It is also the tastiest way to use up leftover bread.