The joke in my family was that I must have been born with a stainless steel stomach. Ever since I can remember, I have always loved the sharp tang of acidic foods. I would splash extra red wine vinegar on my salad, eat giardiniera with abandon, dollop an extra spoonful of my nonna Ada’s homemade horseradish sauce on top of her bollito misto, and squeeze extra lemon juice on top of chicken cutlets alla milanese. The more lip-puckering or sinus-clearing, the better. From the time I was little, I was always fed flavorful, well-seasoned food–there was no shying away from feeding the kids in the family strongly flavored foods and condiments. We were instructed to try everything at least once before determining whether we liked something (or not). When you grow up with every family member being an excellent home cook, and a grandfather as a professional chef, it’s not hard to understand why I grew up enjoying food so much. My love of tangy, acidic flavors remains strong to this day–a nod to my Roman and northern Italian heritages. Onions have always been one of my favorite vegetables, and Italians use them not only as an aromatic for soups and stews, but also has the hero ingredient. Aside from being enjoyed raw in salads, they are also prepared in a variety of ways that mellow their piquant bite and release their natural sweetness: braised, roasted, baked, stewed, smothered, and sautéed. In Italy, many vegetables lend themselves well to an intensely flavorful preparation known as agrodolce, and one of my favorite side dishes has always been these sweet and sour cipolline.
The preparation of ingredients in agrodolce dates back to ancient Roman times and was re-introduced to Sicily by the Arabs. It was also a popular preparation during Renaissance times. Agrodolce is a sauce that is made using wine vinegar and sugar or honey and reducing it until it is thick and syrupy. There are many versions of the sauce flavored with a variety of ingredients and spices which reflect the region where it is made. Although the agrodolce flavor combination is typically associated with Sicilian cooking, the preparation thrives in and spans all of Italy. In the region of Emilia-Romagna, a sauce known as duls e brusc is made with wine vinegar, sugar, raisins, pine nuts, and grated chocolate, and is served with stewed game. Sicilia has both caponata–a side dish of eggplant, onions, olives, capers, and celery cooked down and mixed with vinegar and sugar, and salsa san Bernardo–a sauce made by combining breadcrumbs, chopped almonds, anchovies, sugar, cocoa, water, and vinegar and cooking it over a water bath until it is smooth and creamy. It is served with boiled vegetables and meats. In Trentino-Alto Adige, a variation known as salsa agrodolce di fegato di coniglio is prepared by combining rabbit’s liver, anchovies, savory crackers, onion, celery, lemon zest, and cloves, and cooking the mixture in oil, water, vinegar, and sugar. It is served with roasted or stewed rabbit. In Veneto a marinade known as saor (a derivative of the word sapore, meaning “flavor”) is made for vegetables, fish, and meat by softening onions in oil, wine, and vinegar. Other ingredients added to a saor marinade can include pine nuts, raisins, candied fruit, and lemon zest to amplify the sweet-sour flavor combination. The vegetables, fish, or meat are fried and then combined with the cooked onions and hot liquids and left to marinate for one to two days. My nonna Ada was known in our family for making fantastic sardines in saor, a fish that lends itself especially well to this preparation. Vegetables such as zucca (pumpkin), eggplant, and radicchio also are delicious prepared in saor.
Cipolline in agrodolce is a typical Roman side dish, made often during the colder months when onions are in season, but it is also enjoyed year-round. The flying saucer-shaped cipolline are becoming easier to find in grocery stores, but if you can’t find them, small shallots, “boiler onions”, or pearl onions will also turn out deliciously. A brief bath in boiling hot water will help loosen the skins to make peeling easier. Nevertheless, pack your patience because peeling cipolline or the other smaller alliums is a time-consuming task, but one that is well worth the effort. Although this recipe is easy to make, it does require a good part of the day to cook, however, most of that time is hands-off. In her cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the late Marcella Hazan wrote this headnote about sweet and sour cipolline:
” The secret ingredient in this delectable combination of tartness and sweetness is merely the patience it takes to nurse the onions through an hour or more of slow simmering. The actual preparation couldn’t be simpler. If you can put it on while you are producing something else in the kitchen, you will find it well worth the time it demands, because there are few other vegetable dishes that please so many palates and that are a becoming adornment to so large a variety of meats and fowl.”
As is typical for most Italian recipes, there are variations of the ingredients used to prepare sweet and sour cipolline–some recipes use butter as the fat, while others use olive oil (my preference). The sweetener can vary from white granulated sugar, to brown sugar, to honey. For the sour component, I have seen recipes that use white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar. Whichever ingredient combinations you decide to use, the key to a successful agrodolce is the balance between sweet and sour–neither flavor should dominate. Sweet and sour cipolline make a lovely side dish to roasted or grilled meats and they’re also a flavorful addition to an antipasto platter. It’s an Italian side dish worthy of a spot at your upcoming holiday celebrations.
Sweet and Sour Cipolline
Adapted by Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy
1 pound cipolline onions (you can also use “boiler” onions or shallots)
1 plump garlic clove
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 generous Tablespoon granulated sugar
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
⅓ cup water
Salt, to taste
Peel the onions and soak them in a bowl of cold water for 4 hours. Drain them through a colander. Take two of the onions and chop them finely along with the garlic clove.
Heat a heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Sauté the onion-garlic mixture in the oil until they are golden and soft, adjusting the heat as necessary to ensure they do not burn. Once the onion-garlic mixture is cooked, add in the rest of the whole onions and stir to coat them thoroughly with the oil. Season the onions with salt and sprinkle on the sugar. Next, add in equal amounts of red wine vinegar and water until the onions are almost submerged. Note: Use my measurements as a guideline–the amount of vinegar and water you use will depend on the size of your pan.
Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-low so the liquid simmers. Partially cover the pan and let it simmer slowly for 2 hours, stirring the onions occasionally. The onions are ready when they are soft and can be easily pierced with a sharp knife. The liquid should be mostly evaporated, thick, and sticky in texture. Serve warm or at room temperature.