Worried that holiday entertaining may put you in danger of overspending?
Preserve your bank account and those joyful festive feelings by serving your friends onion sandwiches.
We assure you, they come with the utmost of culinary pedigrees.
Esteemed chef and cookbook author Jacques Pépin happily demonstrates the simple recipe, above, confiding that it was a favorite of his late wife’s.
Everything tastes better when cooked with love, even if the chef’s not doing much more than slicing a couple of half moons from an onion and slathering bread with mayo.
(If you’re allergic to either of those ingredients, try swapping them out for radishes and butter.)
He revisited the subject in 1974’s Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking, while unabashedly fanboying over the humble vegetable in its many forms, from tiny pearl onions to “big delicate Bermudas and the enormous Spanish variety that are in season from fall to late spring:”
Just the other day I was enchanted to receive a box of these giant golden globes, perfectly matched in size and contour, that flourish in the volcanic soil of Oregon and Idaho. They make absolutely superb eating. I love them raw, thinly sliced, with a hamburger or cold meats or in a hearty, flavorful onion sandwich.
The day my gift box arrived I happened to have some slightly stale homemade bread, about two or three days old. I sliced this very thin, buttered it well, covered it with paper-thin slices of Spanish onion, sprinkled them with some coarse salt, and pressed another slice of bread firmed on the top—and there was my supper. I can easily make a whole meal of onion sandwiches, for to me they are one of the greatest treats I know…
Delightful! But hold up a sec. The New York Times’ Tejal Rao, reports that Beard, who had a “reputation for chronic, unapologetic plagiarism” apparently “lifted” the recipe from cookbook authors Irma and Bill Rhode, his one-time partners in a New York City catering company:
It was basic but confident, and it came together with inexpensive ingredients. It was so good that you could easily eat a dozen, and so simple that it barely required a recipe. You glance at the directions, feeling a little silly rolling the sandwiches in chopped parsley, a crucial step that makes the sandwich, and that Irma Rhode said came from Beard. You’d make it once, and then the dish would be committed to memory — as James Beard’s onion sandwich.
Interesting how Ms. Wehrley takes care to note that the Toasted Cheese on Bread published directly below that Onion Sandwich is a recipe of her own invention.
It appears we all borrow from the best. Surely, there’s no reason not to get creative and make that onion sandwich your own.
You could start by varying the ingredients…
Soak some slices of red onion in cold water for 5 minutes to take away their raw bite.
Experiment with pumpernickel or dark rye.
Chop up a blend of windowsill herbs for that showy, savory edge.
Or y’know, buy an onion, a bagel and cream cheese as separate components, assemble, and boom!
As Beard remarked, “Designing hors d’oeuvres is not different from designing sets and costumes … Food is very much theater.”
Basic Onion Sandwich (serves one):
Remove the crusts from 2 slices of bread or cut them into rounds, reserving the scraps for a more involved recipe requiring breadcrumbs
Spread mayonnaise on the face of both pieces
Remove a thin slice from the thickest part of a sweet onion and place atop one of the prepared slices
.Sprinkle with sea salt and top with the other slice of bread.
Spread mayonnaise around the perimeter of the sandwich, and roll in the chopped herbs.
(Can refrigerate for up to 6 hours before serving)
– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.