23 November 2010

Onion Pie

Personal favorites, family traditions, and local specialties; these are just a few of the themes that will shape the choices made across America as we prepare our Thanksgiving dinners tomorrow. Almost everyone adds something to the table, somewhere between the turkey and pumpkin pie, that has a special meaning or story. My father-in-law, for example, will whip up his famous wild rice salad recipe. Even though it is not a traditional Thanksgiving dish, my wife’s family has shared this savory grain salad for years and it has become part of their holiday ritual. It is a piece of their story.

For many gardeners, Thanksgiving will include a variety of dishes that represent a very particular story: the story of this year’s gardening season. In Wisconsin, this might mean a creamy casserole made with homegrown green beans or mashed potatoes and roasted carrots that were only recently unearthed from the backyard. Serving a Thanksgiving meal that you partially grew yourself is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of why many people love to garden: eating local, basing your diet on the season, and forming a personal connection with your food and the land (even if it’s just a small plot next to the driveway).

I didn’t put in a garden this year, mostly because we moved in the middle of the growing season. But I will be making at least one dish that honors the spirit of eating with the season and sharing food that has a story – onion pie.

I first encountered onion pie at a holiday party thrown by my boss, Kristen Gregory, when I was still in college and working at the regional offices of a large healthcare network in northern California. Kristen’s holiday party is always special. For me, there are plenty of memories from these parties – the year one of our data analysts was waylaid in urgent care trying to refill her rescue inhaler; the year that someone (who bore a striking resemblance to myself) overindulged in cognac after dinner; the bowling ball sized snow globe I received in the gift exchange; seeing Kristen’s daughters grow-up from year to year; and the food. Oh, the food. Salmon. Roast beef. Sweet potatoes. Chocolates shaped like mini espresso cups. Onion pie.

I so loved the hearty simplicity of onion pie that I wrote to Kristen a few years ago and asked for the recipe. Her response was a picture-perfect example of what makes good food special. Not just the taste or ingredients, but the story. Onion pie is basically a very simple quiche, and it ties to the land and the season in a way that any gardener (or would-be gardener) can appreciate. According to Kristen:

It is a traditional German dish served in the late fall, when drinking "neuer wein" (new wine) which has just begun to ferment and is a bit bubbly and opaque. There is no equivalent in the US. I think the tradition arose out of the following scenario: In the fall the only cheap vegetables available are onions and potatoes and all the wine from last year has been consumed, so they start dipping into next year's batch.

Sitting fireside, drinking young wine, cooking up the produce in the root cellar… sounds like my kind of party.

Aside from being a satisfying autumn recipe, onion pie fills all the requirements I have for an ideal Thanksgiving. First, it makes excellent use of local, seasonal produce – this year’s onions came from our Harmony Valley Farm CSA share. Second, it has a story – rich in history – that also happens to match nicely with the German heritage of the upper Midwest as welll as my mom’s side of the family. And third, it has become a part of my own story, my family’s story. It links me to a younger time in life and to former colleagues who became friends and role models. Plus, in a meal my mother will never forget, my wife and I served onion pie during the Thanksgiving when we announced our engagement. We just can’t have Thanksgiving without onion pie.

Even though none of our Thanksgiving dishes will come from our own garden this year, I would like to think we are still honoring the gardeners’ code to know our food’s history and savor the story of our meal. I trust, dear friends, that you will do the same.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Kristen’s Onion Pie
(Makes one pie)

Note: If you are frightened by making your own pie crust (which you really don’t need to be), use a pre-made crust. Lightly butter the pan before putting in the crust.

Note: Make the onion pie before you make your turkey stuffing (see below).

  • Dice 6-10 onions (depending on size of onion and size of pie pan) and saute in about 4 tablespoons butter until glassy (about 10 minutes). Allow onions to cool a bit.

Note: You can embellish this with just about anything (chives, sausage, pimentos), but -- as Kristen says -- as soon as you do it is no longer German.

  • Whisk 3/4 cup canned milk with about 3 eggs, add 1/2 tsp salt and ground pepper to taste.
  • Mix onions with milk/egg stuff.
  • Spoon into pie crust, press onions down and flatten out in pie crust. Make it full, but not mounded. Spoon some fluid in the middle if you think it looks dry.

Note: You may have onions left over, use these in the stuffing or something.

Note: You may have egg mixture left over, toss this into the stuffing as well.

  • Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes before you start checking for doneness – knife inserted in middle should come out clean

Note: Your crust may get too brown. If so, you may want to fashion a tinfoil protection collar, this is basically a thin tinfoil doughnut that fits just over the crust edge, but nothing else. Use scissors and your knowledge of circles/geometry to make this.

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