UNION BULLETIN – ANDREW SCHWARTZ – Chef Ralph “Pez” Pesznecker, among those presiding over the onion cooking exhibition a Saturday’s Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, entered the world of onion cooking at a National Onion Association competition at the Hilton Hotel in Portland some years back.
Encouraged by a colleague at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, an “exhilarated” Peszncker made up three recipes to try out: an onion melt (like a patty melt), and onion-gin gazpacho, and an onion caesar.
“Very blatant use of onion,” he said. “That caught them by surprise.”
He came in third, a validation of Pesznecker’s cooking philosophy: When a recipe calls for half an onion, he might think to himself, “why not six?”
Pesznekcer said “sometimes recipes aren’t made to highlight anything in particular.”
But, whether as a savory touch to a marmalade or sweet pull on a pork belly, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion, according to the chefs at this festival celebrating the vegetable and its associated cultures, can be the star of just about any culinary delight.
Onion poke and onion empanadas that morning led to the more mainstream onion ring.
Oil sizzling on the table beneath him, Pesznecker spoke from the Crawford Park stage to the gathered crowd and the farmers market behind on the nature of the breaded staple. Devotees gathered for samples.
Pesznecker’s microphone was held by Patti Curfman, an Oregon woman who incidentally took first place in the same National Onion Association competition all those years ago.
A pastry chef of 18 years and a cook of far longer, Curfman said the Walla Walla Sweet is the “Mercedes of onions.”
She was here last year, too, had a good time, made friends with a Seattle Seahawks cheerleader: “we Facebook each other.”
Between demos to the assembled crowd, she gave a U-B correspondent a private caramelizing tutorial, illustrating proper chopping technique, the touch of oil and the high heat into which the onions enter before the flame lowers to a slow and patient burn.
When the time was right, she broke out the tequila. “Got a girl?” she asked the correspondent.
“Have somebody over for dinner. Get a little pork belly smoked — you can buy it all ready to go just warm it up — you can make a little caramelized onion and then you get right down to the end, and then flame it — really impressive.
“Don’t tell her it’s the only thing you know how to make.”
Picture: Greg Lehman – Sweet Onion Festival Walla Walla Washington