Have you ever tasted a raw olive off the tree? The flavour is so horrifically acrid and bitter, you might easily think you'd poisoned yourself. Leave that same olive in some salt or a few weeks and it is transformed to lip-smacking deliciousness. And what about smooth, creamy chocolate: how can it be related to the bitter cacao pod from which it originates? Or, for that matter, vanilla. When picked, vanilla beans are green, and lack any odour or flavour. Only after a careful curing process do you get that supple, leathery brown pod packed with vanillin, vanillic acid and other flavour compounds.
Few ingredients undergo quite as radical a transformation as the humble onion. From something sharp, acrid and literally tear-jerking it changes - with nothing more than heat, into something sweet, mellow and comforting.
If you're not mad on the taste of raw onions (I'm not a fan) but you want them for a recipe like a fresh salsa, you can take out some of their bite by soaking them in cold water for an hour. Drain before using. Soaking sliced onions in vinegar, or even citrus juice, will soften their pungency and round out their flavours. It also softens their texture. Salting sliced onions does the same thing - you will want to rinse and drain salted onion before using. When sauteeing onions, it pays to add some salt in at the start, as this will start to break down and soften them more quickly as well as help reduce their volatile flavours.
Cooking onions brings out their sweetness. The longer you cook them, the sweeter they become. Sweated onions, which have a clean, strong onion flavour, are cooked gently in a little bit of oil or fat, just until they begin to soften and release some liquid but don't take on any colour. Sauteed onions are cooked for a little longer, they have a light golden colour and have a slightly sweeter flavour than sweated onions. These are the onions you want for your sausage or burger or to start a tomato-based sauce. If you keep cooking onions beyond the sauteed stage, you'll end up with caramelised onions. These are buttery, soft and very sweet, with a rich brown colour, just what you want for a French-style onion soup or a tart.
Here's a dense, rich, onion-based tomato sauce I like to make in bulk at this time of year. You can trot it around the globe to create a multitude of different dishes simply by adding different spices and seasonings. Always add the garlic after you have cooked off the onions as it will easily burn if you add it at the start.
Classic tomato sauce
Here's a classic tomato sauce that's rich with the flavour of onions. It makes a wonderful springboard for so many fabulous dishes.
Ready in 1 hour
Makes 8 cups
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed
70g tub tomato paste
3kg tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped, or 7 x 400g cans tomatoes in juice or canned cherry tomatoes
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp fine white pepper
Heat oil in a large pot and cook onion over a medium-low heat until softened and just starting to turn lightly golden, about 10-12 minutes. Add garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring for another 1-2 minutes.
Add all remaining ingredients, cover and simmer for 40 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent catching.
Adjust seasonings to taste. If you prefer a smoother sauce, mash with a potato masher or puree with a hand blender or in a food processor.
Store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week or freeze in 2-cup measures for later use. For long-term storage, bottle while hot into sterilised jars and seal. It will keep for at least a year in a cool pantry.
Spanish chicken bake
A good tomato sauce is the starting point to so many dishes around the globe. Here the addition of Spanish flavours transforms this simple chicken bake.
Ready in 45 minutes
1 Tbsp oil
4 chicken leg quarters or 1 whole chicken cut into 4
½ tsp smoked paprika
2 cups classic tomato sauce
½ cup water
2 jarred red peppers (or peeled roasted peppers) cut in thin strips
2 tsp capers
2 Tbsp pitted kalamata olives
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Polenta or rice, green salad
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake. Use paper towels to pat chicken dry. Heat oil in an ovenproof frying pan or dutch oven casserole. Season chicken well and brown all over. Transfer to a plate.
Add smoked paprika to the pan and stir around over heat for a few seconds before adding classic tomato sauce, water, sliced peppers, capers and olives. Transfer sauce to a baking dish and place browned chicken on top, nestling it into the sauce a little.
Transfer to pre-heated oven and bake uncovered, until chicken is golden and cooked through, about 35-40 minutes.
Accompany with creamy polenta or rice and serve a crisp green salad on the side.
Last-minute butter chicken
Adding Indian spices and some coconut cream to your classic tomato sauce creates a wonderful sauce for any kind of wet curry. This is one of those fabulous recipes that becomes your go-to default for busy nights.
Ready in about 40 mins
1 Tbsp oil
1 tsp each finely grated fresh ginger and finely chopped long red chilli
½ tsp each curry powder and garam masala
¼ tsp each fennel seeds, mustard seeds and turmeric
2 cups classic tomato sauce
1 cup coconut cream
1 large kūmara, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
600g boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into thirds
5 handfuls baby spinach leaves
¼ cup chopped coriander leaves
In a medium pot, heat oil and gently fry all the spices and aromatics until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add classic tomato sauce, coconut cream and kūmara. Season with salt and pepper.
Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add the chicken pieces, stirring to fully submerge in sauce and cook until chicken is fully cooked through (another 10-15 minutes).
Mix through the spinach and coriander, stirring over the heat until they are fully wilted.
Match these with ...
by Yvonne Lorkin
(Classic tomato sauce)
Seresin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($25)
Some sauvignon blanc styles are known to have a distinctly delicious tomato leaf or tomato stalk aroma and this certified organic, biodynamically crafted sauvignon blanc is one of them. Grown in Seresin's Raupo Creek vineyard, fermented using naturally occurring, wild yeasts and matured in a mixture of old oak vessels before being blended with a 9 per cent splash of semillon (sem-ee-yon), it's also layered with lime, fresh-baled hay, jalapenos, bruised basil and green apple goodness. Plus it's darn lovely to sip while you're standing there at the cooktop, stirring away at this rich and saucy sauce.
(Spanish chicken bake)
Tenuta Maiano Extra Dry Organic Spumante Rosé ($29.50)
The second I see smoky paprika, capsicum, capers and kalamata olives in a recipe, I'm reaching for a sip that's slightly pink and, ironically, slightly sweet. Crafted from organic malvasia nera grapes grown in the commune of Motespertoli in Tuscany, it's a pink sapphire superstar in the glass and erupts with aromas of soft citrus, sweet florals and caramelised marshmallow. Sip it, and relish its pillowy, creamy texture, perky acidity, soft cherry flavours and its deliciously drinkable, generous finish. While it's Italian and it says "extra dry" on the label, it's actually a sweetheart to sip with smoky, spicy Spanish dishes.
(Last-minute butter chicken)
Forrest Marlborough Riesling 2020 ($25)
If you like your riesling to assail your olfactories with apple, lime zest and a lick of magical minerality, you've done a perfect parallel park, my friend. Punchy acidity, pure pipfruit and crunchy citrus and the unmistakable rain-on-hot-asphalt punch of petrichor make this an ultra-refreshing sip, especially perfect for the buttery, tomatoey, oniony, richness of Annabel's butter chicken. It has excellent length of flavour and some serious cellar-worthy chops too (if you're disciplined enough to squirrel it away for 10+ years).