Cipollini onions and the secret to a good life

What’s the secret to living a longer, healthier life? It’s not about eating these onions, but about the process in getting to eat them.

Cipollini onions: the cure to whatever ails ya. Photos by Stacey DeWolfe

For folks who love to cook and chat, there are few things better than a food jam. When my mom visited a few years ago, every day played out the exact same way: casual discussions about dinner throughout the morning, a visit to the market in the afternoon, and then fancy cocktails, lively conversation and the slow, leisurely production of the evening meal. These are the simple pleasures of life, and though many people cannot make this kind of time available during the work week (I was only able to achieve this kind of easy rhythm because the visit took place during my spring break) most people could probably find the time on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon — it’s just a matter of laying out your priorities.

And while it may seem like too much of a luxury to make this kind of activity a priority, recent popular studies into the demographic and geographic factors linked to longevity — including “The Island Where People Forget to Die” in the New York Times Magazine and Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones — suggest that slowing down, eating fresh, healthy food and participating in meaningful social exchange are some of the key elements in the quest for a long and happy life.

Last weekend, a good friend and frequent collaborator suggested we get together for our monthly food jam. He would prepare the main course and the starchy component, and I would take care of the rest. I had my heart set on making a dish based around some Cipollini onions I had seen at the market the day before, so he offered to work around me.

You’ve probably seen these beautiful little disc-shaped onions at the market, but may not have known what, exactly, they were or what to do with them. Because they tend to be little more expensive (this time, $4 for a small basket), they are not the kind of onion you would buy unless you were planning to really feature them in a dish.

I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but my problems were instantly solved when I struck up a conversation with proprietor Daniel Brais of La ferme des moissons at Marché Jean-Talon. Thank goodness I did, for what I had in mind was much more labour-intensive and would have caused me to waste much more of the onion than was necessary or desirable. His instructions? Roast them whole, then sprinkle them with maple syrup.

The onions are a bit finicky to peel, so you’ll have to allow a bit of time to take care of that part of the process. But once that’s done, you simply lay them in a cast iron frying pan over medium-low heat with a splash of good olive oil, cover them and leave them for 20–30 minutes. Check them when you feel you must, but don’t disturb them too much unless you sense they might be close to burning.

At about five minutes to dinnertime, lower the heat, add a few good glugs of maple syrup and stir them around. When the onions are sticky with maple, remove them from pan.

As an added bonus, the syrup that remains in the pan is incredibly, surprisingly delicious, like a sweet-onion maple taffy. In fact, the next time I have a bunch of onions to work with, I may mince a few and focus my attention on trying to produce more of this savoury-sweet delight. My thought: trying out this sticky goodness in place of the corn syrup in my grandmother’s traditional no-fail caramel corn.

And as a final note, when I checked in with Daniel Brais at the market yesterday, he was no longer in possession of Quebec-grown Cipollinis, which are harvested in the fall, but did have California onions on hand. 

Read more about Stacey’s culinary and other adventures on her website, or follow her on Twitter @staceydewolfe

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