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Sweet-and-Sour Onions (Cipolline in Agrodolce)

Romans have had a taste for sweet and sour since ancient times, when honey, grape must or sweet wine provided the sweet, and vinegar or garum the sour. In traditional Roman cooking, wild boar or beef tongue may be cooked in agrodolce, as are occasionally red mullet and salt cod. These onions, cooked until golden brown and tender, are ubiquitous in Rome during the colder months. This recipe yields piquant onions that nicely complement the simply prepared meats that are so much a part of the Roman menu.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. small, flat onions, such as cipollini or borettana, or small boiling onions
  • 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oi
  • 1/4 cup sugar 
  • 1/4 tsp. salt 
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar 
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine 
  • 1/2 cup water 

Directions:

To peel the onions, cut off the root end and remove the papery skin and, if it is blemished, the outer layer. (Holding them under cold running water as you work helps prevent tears.) Alternatively, bring a pot three-fourths full of water to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the onions, boil for 1 minute, drain and immerse in cold water until cool. Cut off the root end from each onion and then squeeze the onion; it should slide from its skin. Cut away any tenacious skin at the top. Rinse to remove any residual skin or dirt.

Place the onions in a heavy saucepan or deep fry pan large enough to accommodate them in a single layer. Pour the olive oil over them, add the sugar, salt, vinegar, wine and water, and stir just to mix.

Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until much of the liquid has evaporated and a thick sauce remains in the pan, about 1 hour. The onions should be quite tender and golden brown.

Transfer the onions to a serving bowl and serve warm or at room temperature. They will keep well, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for a few days. Serves 4.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Rome, by Maureen B. Fant (Oxmoor House, 2005).