By Heidi Lewis
The Purple Onion is a tiny basement club in San Francisco’s North Beach. It had its heyday in the ‘50s & ’60s when, it launched a thousand cultural icons. The old Purple Onion hosted comedy groundbreakers, such as Lenny Bruce (“‘Life’ is a four-letter word.”), Richard Pryor (“There’s a thin line between to laugh with and to laugh at.”) and Phyllis Diller, to name just a few. Phyllis Diller famously said, in her housewife shtick, “Best way to get rid of kitchen odors: Eat out.”
Perhaps when your eyes fall on the purple onion, they will begin to water just at the thought of cutting it, so we have some practical tips for you. Purple, aka Red, onions are on the mild side compared to their more pungent yellow or white sisters. All onions, garlic, and leeks (alliums) contain lachrymatory (tear-inducing) allium sulfur compounds.
Dr. Eric Block reveals the elemental essences of onions in Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science. Onions are defensive plants that developed essentially from weeds struggling to survive. “These plants originated in a very tough neighborhood, in Central Asia north of Afghanistan, and they evolved some serious chemical weapons to defend themselves,” writes Dr. Block.
Onions add depth to our cooking but in order to capture that, we need to shield ourselves from the irritating sulphur. Author and food scientist Harold McGee suggests rinsing the onions if using them raw. “Chill onions in ice water for 30 minutes.” A sharp knife also helps. (The cleaner the cut, the less it bruises the onion and releases chemicals that end up in your eyes and nose.) Or you can take a page from the 1981 colorful cult French film “Diva,” directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Richard Bohringer plays Gorodish, who coolly chops onions wearing a snorkel and mask.
Even if you look whacky chopping onions with a snorkel, the effort is probably worth it. Finely chopped red onion adds flavor to salads and fresh mixes. Try a relish in combination with beets or radish; or straight up in Kache Piaz, an Indian condiment.
Preparation: Chop off ends and peel outside skin (known as “tunics”). Slice in half, chill in ice water, rinse, and pat dry. Slice flat side down and into whatever size required.
Storage: Red onions are “storage” onions. They are already cured and will keep well in a dry cool place for a few weeks. Do not store them in the fridge unless you will use them right away.