When's the last time a recipe stopped you in your tracks? It's been a long time for me. That might be in part because it's the medium I work in most often and I'm finding myself a little fatigued, or maybe it's because sometimes recipes — even though they help you get dinner on the table — feel starved of a story. A perplexing conundrum, given their very intention is to feed us — and often in ways beyond just the meal they provide.
But I write this now as a person newly and fully nourished by an encounter with fried water, a recipe from the cookbook Onion Etcetera by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino.
Fried water is the soup you make when there seems to be nothing in the house. It's a recipe whose story carries the legacy of the ingenuity of the women in Guy's family, who made this dish "when there was nothing in the cupboard but onions, eggs, and a heel of bread." This recipe will also teach you a few smart tricks — like how to make a quick vegetarian broth out of onions, a soup out of that broth when you add an egg, and close to what feels like a feast when you serve the soup over stale bread.
Guy's mother and great Aunt Aggie passed along this recipe, and in the instructions, Aggie's words guide you through the process. It starts with onions gently fried in olive oil. Once they begin to soften and relax, taking on a shiny look, water is added to the warm oil (careful for sputtering) and the mixture is boiled and simmered to make a broth. In about 10 minutes, the onions will do what we love them best for, transforming from something assertive and slightly acrid to a tangle of sweet, melting slivers. Beaten eggs are drizzled into the onion broth off the heat, forming into soft threads as the soup is stirred with a fork.
This is a recipe to know by heart. For every person you need to feed, use one medium onion, one egg, and one-and-a-quarter cup of water. That simplicity is comforting when you're in the business of stretching a meal. Eggs, onions, and water. One to one to one (and some). It's made for remembering.
For all the kitchen wisdom and story in this recipe, how it's served is what I love best. The hot soup is ladled over stale bread, once again taking a little bit of nothing and turning it into a meal.
Few ingredients can perform this trick of turning nothing into something quite like the family of alliums. They're unique in that way — with just the right mix of utilitarian, affordable, and delicious qualities to be essential to any home kitchen.
Similarly, few recipes earn the poetry of their name while being equally as precise about the method they teach you. This recipe for fried water and the wisdom and story it contains is enough to convince you there should be a whole book about onions and all the things they can do and all the stories they can tell. Thanks to Kate and Guy, now there is one.
Fried Water (Onion Egg Drop Soup)
yellow onions, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the onions and olive oil in a large skillet and cook gently over moderate heat (“low and slow,” as Aggie says) until the onions are softened and shiny but have not taken on any color, about 10 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to moderately low and simmer until the onions are soft, silky, and can “melt in your mouth,” about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Turn off the heat under the onions and slowly drizzle in the eggs, stirring all the while with a fork — the eggs will cook into soft threads.
Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, set out 4 shallow soup bowls and lay a slice of stale bread in each. Ladle the fried water over the bread and serve at once.
Excerpted from Onions Etcetera by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino. Copyright © 2017 Burgess Lea Press. Published by Burgess Lea Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.