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The quest for the perfect onion ring. March 7, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Maybe it was posting about comfort foods the other day. Maybe it was relaxing with the latest issue of Cook’s Country last night. Maybe it was just skipping supper (our friend Ben was away) and getting hungry. But for whatever reason, I found myself thinking about onion rings.

Actually, I think it was because the issue of Cook’s Country evaluated various brands of boxed and frozen macaroni and cheese, that other classic comfort food. (The winner was Kraft Homestyle Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, in case you’re wondering.) The tasters’ comments were a scream, ranging from “It was as if the mac and cheese was depressed” to “the flavorless, ‘rubbery, mushy mass’ of ‘hideous orange elbows'” for the less-favored brands.

Thanks to my slow cooker and my friend Delilah, I make my own delicious mac’n’cheese at home. (Check out “The ultimate mac’n’cheese” in our search bar at upper right for the recipe.) Mac’n’cheese that isn’t creamy and flavorful, with lots of custardy body and plenty of crunch, just doesn’t cut it with me. Oooey, gooey, soft, runny, orange, Velveeta-like mac’n’cheese… please.

Thinking about this reminded me that onion rings, one of the most divine, decadent foods known to man when cooked right, often suffered the same humdrum fate as mac’n’cheese, even in restaurants where it ought to fare better. The perfect onion ring needs three things: First, there must be a sweet ring of onion—none of that biting, sulfuric tang allowed—that’s cooked through, not raw, but still has plenty of body to stand up to the crust. This is an onion ring, people: the onion must shine through. Second, there must be a flavorful batter, not a deadening, smothering coating of bland gunk. And finally, the coating must be crispy-crackly, not mushy or tooth-cracking hard.

I should also mention the balance of crispy-crackly coating to onion, because this too is all-important: In the best onion rings I’ve found, you can actually see the big ring of onion through the pieces of crust. Yes, there’s plenty of crust for crunch, but not enough to suffocate the onion. 

I have encountered great onion rings that meet all these criteria in restaurants across the country, both beer-battered and buttermilk-battered. But all too often, I’ve instead encountered those mushy, slimy, flavorless excuses for onion rings that were obviously shipped in from some frozen-food wholesaler: Too much batter. Where is the onion? Eeeewww, a nasty metallic tang if you do find some onion. A tough layer of onion skin?!! Shriek!!! Maybe the deep-frying has managed to give the outside a certain amount of crunch (or gone wrong and hardened the crust to tree-bark status), but the inside remains mushy and flavorless. Yuck!  

That’s why I’ve never even considered buying frozen onion rings from the grocery: Stick ’em in the oven and eeewww, please don’t tell me I’m supposed to think these are onion rings! I don’t know if there are boxed onion-ring batter mixes on the market, like boxed mac’n’cheese, and frankly, I don’t plan to find out. I’d much rather make my onion rings from scratch.

There’s just one little problem with my homemade onion-ring scheme: I hate touching grease. As a result, I refuse to deep-fry anything, no matter how much I enjoy that fried-food crunch. And I refuse to compromise and eat mushy baked pseudo-French fries or whatever while pretending that they bear any resemblance to the real thing. From a health perspective, this is a good thing, since I probably eat onion rings and French fries about once a year each. But from a culinary perspective, it’s a tragedy.

Our friend Ben and I love onions and eat them at least once a day, cooked and/or in salads. So unfried but crispy, crunchy, sweet, full-bodied onion rings seemed like a worthy challenge. After finishing my perusal of the issue of Cook’s Country, which, like its parent magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, specializes in testing and retesting recipes until they’ve developed the perfect version, I determined to think through how they would go about creating delicious unfried onion rings and try to duplicate the process myself.

My first thought was to slice a big, sweet onion like a Vidalia into rings, then briefly saute them in butter until they clarified but weren’t soft. Next, dredge (coat) them in all-purpose flour seasoned with Trocomare or salt and pepper, and maybe a little ground cumin or curry powder for kick. Finally, return them to the pan and cook briefly, flipping as needed, until the coating crisped up.

But before attempting this, I decided to go online and see what I could find by way of homemade onion-ring recipes. Hmmm. It seemed like most of the recipes divided into a dairyless beer-batter coating or a buttermilk-and-egg coating, but they all called for deep-frying. I finally found a recipe for “oven-fried” onion rings that required only 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, hallelujah! Not surprisingly, it had originated at Cook’s Country!

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t just head to the Cook’s Country website (http://www.cookscountry.com/) and search for onion rings, the website is subscription-only. Even folks like yours truly who subscribe to the magazine must pay for an additional web subscription to access the site. Thanks, but. I could have signed up for the “FREE 14-day trial membership” and looked for an onion-ring recipe, but it’s a matter of principle: I’m already a paying subscriber; you’d—or at least, I’d—think I could have free access to the website. To be fair, Cook’s Country and Cook’s Illustrated don’t accept advertising, the financial backbone of most magazines, and are entirely subscriber-supported so that, like Consumer Reports, they can give unbiased product reviews. Still, let’s just say they’re not the only ones on tight budgets.

But I digress. My search for the perfect unfried onion-ring recipe took me to a surprising site I’d never have conceived of, even as a parody: Cooking for Engineers (http://www.cookingforengineers.com/). As the site (mercifully, open-access) explains, it’s for people with analytical minds who like to cook. And sure enough, Michael Chu, who wrote the “Oven-Fried Onion Rings” post, provided tons of specific details and techniques, excellent color photos of the steps, and even a (to me, incomprehensible) chart at the end which seemed to graph the entire process.

Michael’s writing was excellent—colorful in the intro, precise in the instructions. And sure enough, the photos of the finished onion rings looked good: You could indeed still see the thick, yummy-looking onions through the crunchy coating. His analysis: “The rings were amazing—the best oven-fried recipe I have tried to date. The coating had just the right amount of crunchiness (although not really crispy like the deep-fried variety) and was full of flavor. Best of all, the onions had been cooked just to the peak of their sweetness.”

Jackpot, right? Well, I dunno. The recipe, which serves four, calls for a total of 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, a very far cry from the quarts used by the typical deep-fryer. Great!!! But to get that non-crispy crunchiness, you not only need flour, buttermilk, and an egg, but also 30 Saltines and 4 cups of kettle-cooked potato chips. Seems like you’re gaining clean-up convenience but not losing calories, and at the end of it all, your onion rings still don’t really measure up.

Now, those of you for whom calories don’t count are probably wondering what the big deal is here: You’re making onion rings, for God’s sake, not health food, so who cares? But for folks like me, who have to walk an extra hour to burn off even one onion ring, every calorie has to earn its keep.

Yes, I’ll indulge in two or three perfect, luscious onion rings (or some even yummier onion “petals”) once in a blue moon (our friend Ben helpfully takes care of the rest). But no, if I order them and they’re disappointing, I won’t eat them after the first bite (fortunately OFB is less discriminating, so at least they don’t go to waste). Damned if I’m taking that kind of calorie hit for no payoff! For the same reason, you’ll never catch me eating either Saltines or potato chips: empty calories, and plenty of ’em. So the thought of loading both of them onto onion rings gives me plenty of pause.

Geez. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this quest, and should leave the making of perfect onion rings to the pros. Might I have better luck with my other great love, sweet potato fries? Not likely. But folks, if you happen to hold the secret to great homemade onion rings (or sweet potato fries, for that matter) that aren’t fried, please share it with me. Where there’s life (and an ample supply of Vidalia onions), there’s hope.

                  ‘Til next time,

                                Silence

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Ben Picks Ten: Diner Foods July 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben noticed that someone had searched Poor Richard’s Almanac yesterday for the top ten diner foods. The part of Pennsylvania where Silence Dogood and I live may be lacking in the Greek, Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other ethnic restaurants we crave, but it’s rich in wonderful old country inns and diners. Our friend Ben admits with chagrin that I’d never even seen a diner when I first moved to the area from my native Nashville. But I’ve since spent many a happy lunch hour in area diners, and Silence and I occasionally treat out-of-state guests to the unforgettable diner breakfast experience.

What do I eat in diners? If it’s breakfast time, our friend Ben favors French toast or a grilled sticky bun (a regional specialty) or hash browns or home fries with eggs fried hard. Or, if I’m trying to be good, I’ll have a bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar and milk. And, of course, the ubiquitous diner coffee, which in our friend Ben’s humble opinion puts Starbucks’ nasty, bitter coffee to shame. Our friend and blog collaborator Richard Saunders favors a stack of syrup-drenched pancakes and another regional specialty, scrapple, which is cut in slabs and fried like sausage, with his coffee and eggs. (He’s been known to put syrup on the scrapple as well, but given our friend Ben’s own syrup-laden French toast, we don’t have a lot of room to talk here.)

For lunch, our friend Ben favors a club sandwich with French fries and cole slaw, or an omelette with French fries, or a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich with French fries and cole slaw, or a Greek salad (mercifully without French fries). Those fries keep our friend Ben out of diners except as an occasional treat, since I can’t resist them, or another thing I’m passionate about: onion rings. I could devote an entire post to onion rings, onion petals, and the like, and what makes them good (fresh sweet onions, lightly battered, fried just so and served with a generous portion of creamy horseradish dipping sauce) or bad (frozen, heavily battered, tasteless). Beer batter: good. Gummy pseudo-batter: bad. Crunchy: good. Rigid: bad. But I digress.

But what are the top ten diner foods? I hope someone who owns or works in a diner reads this post and gives us all an informed opinion. Until then, our friend Ben is going to hazard a guess. Please chime in and let us know what you think! So here goes, ten, in no particular order:

1. French onion soup. Tops the list on every diner menu. 

2. Hot roast beef sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes. Real comfort food, especially with a side of overcooked green beans.

3. Burgers (all kinds) and fries. Wraps, gyros, and other less-standard fare have showed up on diner menus in recent years, but our friend Ben believes that the iconic status of the diner burger remains unassailable.

4. Croquettes (salmon, chicken, tuna). The predecessors of crab cakes. Diners are about the only places that still offer them.

5. Hash browns or home fries. The diner equivalent of Tater Tots, these crispy-crunchy treats are usually reserved for breakfast, but if you’re lucky, the diner of your choice will serve breakfast all day long. Order them extra-crunchy, and hope they make them from scratch and throw some diced onion in.

6. Diner coffee. A food group in and of itself, and rightly so. Ignore the ghastly little plastic thimbles of half-n-half or pseudomilk and demand (politely, of course) that they bring you a small pitcher of real whole milk for your coffee. It’s worth the hassle.

7. Club sandwiches. This is probably just bias on our friend Ben’s part, since I love club sandwiches, but unless you’re actually in a country club, I don’t know where else you’d find them.

8. Creamed chipped beef on toast. There’s a much less printable name for this particular dish, which to my knowledge is only served in diners, where it’s ubiquitous, so somebody must be eating it. (Not our friend Ben, though—just looking at it is enough to turn my stomach.) Hash of all kinds, including corned beef hash and the wonderfully named red flannel hash, also falls in this category.

9. Clam chowder. Why this has become a diner staple is a mystery to our friend Ben, who’d have thought it would be best served in New England seafood houses, but I’ve never seen a diner that didn’t feature at least one kind of clam chowder, so I guess it must be working for them.

10. Pies, all kinds, but especially banana cream pie, lemon meringue pie, coconut custard, cherry, and Boston creme pie.

There are plenty of other diner faves I didn’t put on the list, including ice-cream sundaes, baked potatoes (and, around here, potato filling), open-faced hot turkey sandwiches, and mac’n’cheese. Not to mention an up-and-coming favorite that our friend Ben, who loves mac’n’cheese and fried foods, has not dared to try, deep-fried mac’n’cheese cubes. (I just know they would be good. I can see myself gaining ten pounds for every cube consumed. I can also see myself being mercilessly needled by friends who think this is the grossest concept ever devised. I’m keeping far, far away from them.)

And I’m ignoring the appetizers like buffalo wings and jalapeno poppers that are doubtless popular at diners but are also served at every pizzeria, bar, and etc. Ditto the salad bar, doughnuts, muffins, and other widely available food. Let’s stick to diner specialties here.

Now it’s your turn. What am I missing here? Help me out, folks. Does your local diner serve our friend Ben’s favorite, sweet potato fries? (I wish ours did.) Fried chicken and corn cakes? (Would that it were.) Eclairs or pecan pie or dinner rolls to die for? Let us know what your diner’s specialties are. Maybe I can persuade Silence to put her formidable cooking skills to work and recreate a few of them for us!