Julia Child once said, “It is hard to imagine a civilisation without onions.” As I write this, onions are sprawled over the streets of Pukekohe after approximately 10 tonnes were washed away in the Auckland Anniversary weekend storm. But while you stew in a panic of how you’ll survive if there’s an onion shortage, I’m laughing on the sidelines.
You see, my partner Taylor has a fructose intolerance and can’t eat onion, along with a long list of other things. When I first discovered his intolerance, my head was spinning. What are we going to eat? Will I ever be able to cook my favourite dinners again? How can I share dining experiences without indulging in onion-laced meals? He’s worth sacrificing onions for though, and now I have a niche skill up my sleeve – cooking onion free!
I’ll admit that certain classics can’t be made without onion – French onion soup, beef bourguignon, caramelised onion – basically anything with onion in the title. So let’s put those on the back burner until the supply is replenished.
Where you would usually sauté an onion to start a saucy dinner, such as a Bolognese, slice up a chunk of leek instead. Leeks have been my saviour. They’re slightly milder but still bring the onion flavour you’re craving. Despite what you may think, there’s nothing wrong with the green tops. They may be slightly on the rubbery side, but waste not want not. Leek is more expensive than the humble onion, but you can get 2–4 onions worth out of one leek, so it all balances out in the end.
Celery is where I look to next for an onion alternative. I’ve realised that it feels wrong if you don’t start cooking certain meals without sautéing an onion, but celery (and leek) gives the same satisfaction. Celery is perfect in anything from stir-fries to soups. It softens down to a melt in your mouth texture, quite the opposite to its stringy raw form. You certainly get your money’s worth from a head of celery too. Trimmed stalks will stay juicy and crisp in a glass of water for weeks, just refresh the glass every few days.
Spring onion adds fresh pungency to salads, slaws and broths where you might have used a finely shaved red onion. Toss large chunks in with stir-fried veggies or blitz into punchy dressings. They’re also easy to grow, even if you’re a novice gardener like me.
There’s no need to cry if onions become scarce. A life without onions is all about adapting. Simply assess your recipe, replace the onion with a readily available alternative and you won’t notice its absence.
Words Harriet Boucher