Pearl onions are one of those items that never found their way into my grocery cart. Too much work. Who wants to spend all that time peeling the skin off that itty, bitty thing?
No, there just didn't seem to be much of a payoff with pearl onions. But I was wrong. Peeling them is not very hard it all. Oh, there's some work involved, alright. But it's not hard. And it's worth it for the sweet flavor these onions deliver.
The trick is to blanch the onions to loosen the skins. Bring a pot of water to a boil, drop in the onions and let them cook for one minute. Then drain the pot or remove the onions with a slotted spoon and immerse them in cold water. To peel, trim the root end from the onion. I find a small serrated knife is best for this as the onions are a bit slippery. With the root end removed, you can squeeze the stem end between your fingers. The onion will slip away from the skin and pop free.
I use the same procedure for skinning other small onions such as cipollini. Once the skin is removed, the onions can go back in the pot to cook through. Cipollinis are particularly good caramelized in a sweet-and-sour manner--dressed with vinegar and sugar. Brown them agressively for a dramatic side dish.
Last night we spent the evening with our friend Shelley and John watching the Super Bowl. John had made a huge pot of beef stew with pearl onions. Coincidentally, I'd made a hearty dish of lentils with pearl onions. It had been too long since the last time we'd had lentils, and the pearl onions add just the right amount of sweetness to the meaty lentil flavor.
For a big pot of lentils, first blanch and skin 20 ounces pearl onions. In a big, heavy pot, heat three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Add the onions plus 3 large carrots peeled and sliced on the diagonal; 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced; 1 teaspoon salt; 4 fresh thyme sprigs; 1 bay leaf. Cook over moderate heat until vegetables begin to soften, then add 2 cups French green (or Puy) lentils, rinsed, and 5 cups water. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and cook until the lentils are tender.
The cooking time for the lentils will vary depending on freshness. Expect somewhere between 12 and 20 minutes. Test them occasionally. They should be just tender, not mushy. To serve, remove the thyme sprigs and the bay leaf. Adjust the salt as needed and season with freshly ground black pepper.
This is a great dish to serve next to a braised lamb shank. But really, lentils have a meatiness all their own. Just spoon some into a bowl and garnish with some chopped fresh parsley and maybe a drizzle of olive oil.