This is one American classic I thought I'd never try to do at home. At the Platonic Diner in the Sky (Home of the "Pie in the Sky" and other ideals-you know the one) these are prepared perfectly and an optional side to every suitable main dish. There, the batter is crisp, brown and light, the onions soft and not the least stringy, but not mushy either. The rings are round, distinct, and never stuck together; they are lightly, but definitely salted, after frying. These perfect rings are well drained and blotted, hot, and served almost instantly after they are done. They are properly made by a gifted fry cook, and are not the sort of thing one makes at home.
It is clearly a messy process, and a last minute pain in the butt- a side dish no-no in my book. Further, they excude wickedness. I like to eat wicked food out, rather than at home, so that there is no evidence around to inhibit the denial process.
Don't get me wrong, I don't really think any good food is actually wicked, except in the most delightful sense. There are just things that I have a harder time resisting than others, and they are more likely to lead to gluttony and regrets. So, I don't eat, say, potato chips at home, as I can't keep a partly eaten bag around. I'll eat them anywhere else though- so don't hesitate to offer, please.
The problem which has developed here, far from the Platonic Diner, is that halfway decent onion rings are getting harder to find. I, like many of my friends and associates, am more than willing to eat halfway decent onion rings. When someone brings in a little tray of them, at lunch, with take-out food, we all (especially yours truly) fall upon them like beasts. But they are less and less good, and harder and harder to find downtown. I find this disappointing-and I don't want to become bitter.
What really made me decide to try them though, was a recipe in the Barefoot Contessa at Home, a gift cookbook which I would not, myself, have bought. I have nothing against Ina Garten. Indeed, from watching her on television, I can see that she is a good cook, and that her recipes work. The thing is, she doesn't really tell me anything I don't already know, or fix things I haven't made before. Possibly it is just that we are pretty similar cooks in a lot of ways, though she obviously knows a lot about catering, and I certainly don't.
The other reason I have avoided her books is just well, strange. Several people-including people who have no idea that I ever made a pot of soup, have told me that I look a whole lot like her. It's not that I think she looks you know, unpleasant, or anything like that. I just truly don't see it myself, though-except that the hair is similar. But I guess there's something in it, coming as it does from so many independent sources. The one that really weirded me out was a person at work who , who said he came upon his wife watching Ms. G on tv, and exclaimed, "My god, [Lindy] has a cooking show!" I mean, he claims he actually thought it was me. I don't know why this is a little creepy, but it is.
I looked through the cookbook, and found the food commonsensical. The photos look good and appealing, and I'd be surprised if they weren't both well tested and well within the abilities of a reasonably adept home cook. And there was a recipe for real onion rings in there. So, I thought I'd try them, you know, just for me, and see if 1) they are reasonably do-able, and 2) if it seems possible to make them while getting a (compatable) dinner of some sort on the table.
I cut her recipe in half, as this was to be a sample, and took her advice about using a deep pot, insead of a frying pan, to avoid oily havoc. This is the test batch I made of Ina Garten's cornmeal-fried onions. You need:
a large spanish onion
buttermilk- 1 cup
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
all purpose flour 3/4 cup
1/8 cup of medium yellow cornmeal
tsp hot hungarian paprika (you can leave this out if you like- my addition-I like some paprika in my cornmeal coating)
2-3 cups vegetable oil
Peel the onion and slice it 1/2" thick, and separate it carefully into rings. Put the butter milk in a smallish bowl, add salt and pepper, and soak the onion rings in the mix for awhile- preferably an hour or two. In another smallish bowl, mix the flour and cornmeal, and add some salt and pepper, and the paprika if you use it . When you are ready to go-preheat the oven to 200F. (Right away- you're not finishing something else in any 200F oven, so the rest of the dinner had better be top of the stove stuff.) Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
Now, stick a candy thermometer in a dutch oven or similar deep sturdy pot, add the oil and heat to 350F. Have some tongs and the baking sheet at hand, as well as the 2 bowls and a dish of coarse salt. Take about 1/3 of the onion rings out of the buttermilk, dredge in the flour (you can do this with one of your clean hands-keep the other, preferably the dominant hand, dry for tong wrangling), and drop gently in the oil. Fry for about 2 minutes, turning once with the tongs. Extract with tongs, and lay out on the paper towel cover pan. Sprinkle with salt.Check the temperature, adjust the heat accordingly, and do the rest in 2 batches.These guys will stay warm and crisp for 30 minutes while you frantically get the rest of dinner ready.
They are ridiculously good- crisp, tasty and breeze-light, for heaven's sake. You must handle them carefully once they are fried, for they will shatter into shards if you don't. Wow. I've got to figure out a meal that I can make with them, so I can share them, and be adored. So what do you think? Maybe a pan-grilled buffalo burger (my current favorite of all hamburgers) on a homemade bun, and some slaw? Not very original, but then onion rings kind of go with red meat to me, from diner associations, I suppose. I think the slaw may be mandatory. Or maybe a big poofy omelet and sauteed mushrooms? They're awfully pretty, IMO, and not such an alarming project after all.. Any ideas for the rest of the Dinner with Onion Rings? If someone served me some real onion rings with my dinner, I'd be pretty grateful. I'm just saying.
P.S. Yes, of course I ate them. Too many. I'll make them only for company in the future. Not as if this debacle was unpredictable. And BTW, hearburn did not ensue.