I’m soooo boring. I was playing ‘last meals’ with a couple of friends – you know, what would your last meal be if you were on death row (crime unspecified but possibly involving murdering some eejit politician) and yes, I know it’s tasteless but let’s just say drink had been taken. Lobsters were mentioned. Foie gras came into the discussion. And then I let the side down – or up, depending on your point of view: perfect bread, butter, great slab of strong cheese, preferably a well-matured farmhouse Cheddar or Cheshire, and pickled onions. Good ones. Great ones. Home-made ones.
This may have been because I’d just been lucky. For some reason, pickling onions have been thin on the ground this year, and because I had onion white rot in the garden (AGH!) I didn’t have any small onions or excess shallots of my own. But then I saw some, lurking in the gigantic new Waitrose (hooray!!!) in Chester. Grab and go. Grabbed the last two packs, paid and went, actually.
They were a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. I knew it was late in the season, so I knew I was talking a chance but hey, this was Waitrose: they should have been perfect. And they weren’t; some had definitely gone off, and many more were a bit soft. It’s best to pickle really hard onions, but beggars who buy their pickling onions in Waitrose can’t be choosers, so I had to make do with what I’d got, pick through them carefully and hope I’d got enough for one giant jar.
And I had, and I can’t wait – but I know I must. Believe you me, they’re worth it. So here’s my pickled onion recipe, for next year. Starting with my own spiced vinegar, because I find the commercial ones rather harsh and dominant. Oh, and I double brine my onions, which takes a couple of days or so.
1 litre cider vinegar
1 heaped tbsp cloves
2 sticks of cinnamon, 10cm long
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries
a couple of blades of mace
Put everything in a pan (not aluminium) and bring the vinegar just to the boil – there should be no bubbling. Decant everything into a bowl, cover it and leave it to infuse for at least a couple if hours (I tend to leave it overnight).
For the pickled onions
1.5kg pickling onions
900ml pickling vinegar
3.6 litres water
Pick over the onions and throw away any which are starting to rot (sigh). Put the rest of the unpeeled onions into a large bowl, add half the salt and water, and stir everything together. The onions will float; weigh them down into the brine by putting a plate on top. Leave them like this for 12-18 hours.
Now for the second brine. Drain the onions, then top, tail and peel them (this will be a lot easier than it would have been if you peeled them at the very start, thank goodness). When peeling them, discard any rubbishy layers, layers of onion that are a bit too soft or starting to look a bit ropy (thanks, Waitrose). Put the peeled onions into a clean bowl, maybe a slightly smaller one this time, with the rest of the salt and enough water to cover them well. Stir and weigh down the onions as before. This time, leave them for 24-36 hours. (The best point to make the pickling vinegar.)
Sterilize a large jar in the oven – just heat the oven with the jar in it at a low level for about 20 minutes. Allow the jar to cool, and then pack the onions in firmly. Drain the pickling vinegar well through two layers of muslin – or an old, clean tea towel – and, using a jug, pour it into the jar until the onions are completely covered. Seal the jar well, and put it in a dark cupboard; forget about it for at least six weeks.
And, at the end of that time, make sure you’ve got some really lovely bread and an ace mature Cheddar. Or whatever floats your own particular pickled boat…