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Two Strategies for the Holiday Month

December 05, 2011 | Tags: Deborah Madison , Food , Health | Post comment

Two Strategies for the Holiday Month

It’s already begun: the first of what will no doubt be many festive holiday dinner parties both as a guest and a host. We all know that it’s a challenge to eat carefully and well amidst a season of abandon and abundance.  I really don’t want to get to New Years and find I’ve gained weight and don’t feel my best. I’d love to get through the holidays at least staying pretty much the same weight and emerge feeling good, healthy, strong and undefeated by food and all its temptations. 

It doesn’t help that the holidays are also especially busy and stressful—the cooking, the shopping, the weather, travel, company—so I’m thinking of some simple but festive foods and some strategies—things to have on hand that I can use to make other dishes special, even at the spur of the moment if I must.  These of course are foods that are useful to have at the ready at any time of the year, but especially now.  So two for this week are Caramelized Onions and Toasted Breadcrumbs.  Simple? Yes, but they can do so much.

For example, caramelized onions can be used to stuff baby portabella mushrooms. They are great in a grilled cheese and mushroom sandwich, which can either be dinner, or, cut into small pieces as an appetizer or accompaniment to a winter squash soup.  These onions can also go on top of a pizza or flat bread, on mashed potatoes or another winter root vegetable. They can be tossed with whole-wheat linguine, plenty of parsley, and a dusting of crushed walnuts. A crostini with crumbled blue cheese over caramelized onions? Easy! Once you have a supply in your refrigerator you’ll find lots of ways to use them.

Breadcrumbs couldn’t be more humble or useful. Toasted in the oven with no oil or butter, they can live on your counter at the ready. They add an unexpected and pleasant crunch to all kind of foods: Scatter them over a thick lentil soup, those stuffed mushrooms, any pasta dish, steamed cauliflower or any vegetable that can use a little pick-me-up. Toss them with minced parsley or another herb, a bit of grated Parmesan and you have an interesting garnish at the ready.

The onions are easy to make, but you’ll want to cook them when you’re in or around the kitchen for about an hour, as they need to be stirred every so often. That way they’ll turn an even golden brown. The breadcrumbs are a great way to use up odds and ends of bread and can be done in a flash.

Caramelized Onions   Makes about 1 1/2 cups
Any onion will caramelize after a long turn on the stove, but sweet onions do so especially well, due to the higher amount of sugar. Not available? Yellow onions are just fine. Reds will turn a little dingy.

2 pounds sweet onions - 5 or 6 medium onions
3 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or a mixture of the two
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Halve the onions, peel, then slice them. I prefer slicing them about ¼ inch thick or even slightly larger since they’re going to diminish a great deal as they cook, but you can make them thinner.
Melt the butter or heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Add the onions, turn them to coat with the butter, then cook over medium-high heat, stirring them every 5 minutes or so. A lot of juices will be released, and as they cook away you’ll notice a change in sound: the pan will start to sizzle. At this point, after about 20 minutes, lower the heat and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the onions are golden all over. In all this takes about an hour so it’s good to have something else you’re doing in the kitchen so that you can turn them often. If you want them even darker, continue to cook them another 30 minutes or so. When done, season them with salt and pepper to taste. Cool and store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Toasted Bread Crumbs   Makes 1 cup
Two slices of whole grain bread (for example, Ezekiel’s sprouted grain breads) will yield a scant cup of crumbs. Tear them into pieces, put them in a blender or food processor and pulse until broken into crumbs.  If your bread is very stale you might have to remove the crusts first. Turn them onto a pan and bake at 350 for 10 minutes or in batches in a toaster oven.  Be sure to move the crumbs around the pan after 5 minutes so that they cook evenly. When cool, store in a dry place. Even a bowl is fine, especially if you find yourself reaching for them often.