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An ode to the humble pickled red onion

Ok this isn’t an ode exactly, but there is something poetic about the way the tart yet the nectarous flavour of pickled red onions hits your mouth. Aesthetically on a plate of food they look impressive, fancy almost. An onion lounging in a sweaty bath, marinating its tough pores in sugar and salt until aged enough for consumption. Not quite so glamorous now, but it was never meant to be. For thousands of years, we have pickled vegetables out of necessity, for preservation.

In recent years, there has been a fermented foods renaissance. Perhaps it’s the sudden urge to improve our gut health, as if our guts have never existed before this decade. Perhaps it’s Instagram food culture, and how the purple acidic rings sit so perfectly on a plate of food, craving our attention. Whatever it is, fermented food is having its moment, and right now, I am putting them in everything and on everything that I can… but not ice cream. That’s too far.

Not only do they elevate the look of a plate but pack a punch in flavour. They have style and substance, and let’s face it – the second is paramount when eating. Acidic but sweet and tangy, it pairs fantastically with savoury food. A regular component in Mexican cooking, pickled red onions work so well with the herbs and spices traditionally used in the cuisine. It’s cousin, the quintessentially British cupboard essential – white pickled onion is a flavour that I am familiar with. Be it in jarringly acidic Monster Munch crisps that remind you that you have a cut on your finger, or with leftover meat at Christmas.

It’s no secret that vinegar can transform our food. The sharpness dances in your mouth, adding a layer of flavour that you will crave to experience again after trying. The first time I tried pickled red onions was at a Las Iguanas restaurant in Cardiff. The chain was my introduction to Mexican cuisine, along with those El Paso meal kits that are always on offer at Asda. Not exactly authentic, but it opened my eyes to a different cuisine than what I was used to, and encouraged me to explore the cuisine further.

Did you know?

The first pickles on record were cucumbers, and they were first pickled in the Tigris Valley in India. The word itself comes from the Dutch pekel or northern German pókel, meaning “salt” or “brine”. The more you know for your Zoom pub quiz, eh?

The unorthodox recipe I use to pickle red onions includes:

  1. Allocating a mason jar
  2. Slicing two red onions into rings
  3. Pouring equal parts distilled vinegar and warm water over to generously coat the onions. *For some magical reason beyond my knowledge, I find that adding specifically warm water helps to speed up the fermentation process.
  4. I add a generous amount of caster sugar and salt to taste and let the onions enjoy their sweaty bath for as long as it takes them to relax into a lovely pink tone and the water is fuschia.

*You can modify your pickled red onions with adding spices such as hot peppers and mustard seeds to your jar.

I have enjoyed pairing them with meat – in burgers or on pork belly where the pickled red onions seem to cut through the fat beautifully. It’s great on brunch food, where it marries well with an avocado drenched in lime and egg on flatbread. It’s of course great on Mexican food, such as the chilli bowl below. The food combinations that you can create with pickled red onions are limitless. They’re full in flavour, beneficial for your health, aesthetically pleasing and cheap to make – what are you waiting for? Your love affair with red pickled onions awaits.

2 replies on “An ode to the humble pickled red onion”

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