Consider the Word
For example: tomorrow night I shall make a dish that involves caramelized onions. Oh, how pretty those must be! It makes me think of a perfect, clean, organic yellow onion peeled and sliced into thin segments, and sauteed over a low flame. The onion's juices, released by the heat conducted by the pan, meld beautifully with the gentle splash of olive oil in which they cook. During their long, slow simmer, the slices wilt and swirl into softly melting slivers -- simply perfect for draping over a fresh slice of warm bread, sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper. The onion flows subtly into my mouth, braced by the good, firm crust of the bread. I close my eyes and think of Italy, of Conversano and the old stone castle, the dry, dusty olive trees.
In reality, all I'm doing is quickly slicing up a couple of onions and throwing them into the cast iron pan on high heat until they sizzle. Then I turn down the burner and give them a stir every so often (err, when I remember) and let them cook away for while I'm doing other things. When they're soft enough, and the other stuff is ready, I'll include them in whatever else I've made for dinner.
But to caramelize my onions (or tomatoes, or sugar, or whatever) sounds so much lovelier, so much more glamorous, than "slowly-cooked, but not burned, onions." If I were serving this at a restaurant, I surely would not use the latter description -- nor would I portray polenta as what it really is: cornmeal mush.
It's a tricky business, trying to write about something without going over the top. I think one of the reasons I love M.F.K. Fisher's work so much is because she was able to capture a moment, a taste, in simple, straightforward prose that was no less eloquent for its brevity.
Every so often I feel compelled to read one of her books for inspiration, and so earlier this week I stopped by the library -- my copy of "The Art of Eating" being safely ensconced in Sonoma County (where, incidentally, she spent the last decades of her life). That tome -- a compilation of several of her books -- is one of my heaviest; I have carted it around with me to the Eastern Shore and back to the West Coast several times (this seems to be a pattern: I once took John Steinbeck's Letters, a 400-page volume, high into the Yosemite mountains on a backpacking trip, and I never regretted it once) in spite of its weight. I still think it one of the best investments I've ever made.
This Fisher re-read has got me thinking about descriptive word choices. I'm not sure how Fisher would feel about caramelized onions, or even if she'd describe them that way, but her clear, unpretentious style resonates with me as strongly today as it always has.
Back to the bare bones food of it all: regardless of how I describe it later, I do think she would approve of my dinner-menu plans for tomorrow night; they incorporate simple, fresh flavors and ingredients, friends -- and a glass of good red wine.
Slowly-Cooked, but not Burned, Onions and Cornmeal Mush
1 onion, peeled and sliced lengthwise into thin slivers
2 tb. olive oil or so
1 tb. (a splash) of red wine
1 cup polenta
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup milk, soy milk, or water
Heat the oil in a frying pan over high heat. Add the onion, and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the wine and turn heat to low and simmer, stirring every so often so the pieces do not burn.
In a separate pot, boil the 2 cups of liquid. Add the polenta slowly, whisking to eliminate clumps. Turn heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add more liquid if the polenta is too stiff.
To serve, place the onions over a generous scoop of polenta, and sprinkle with salt and pepper and herbs du provence (or other herbs). I usually also serve this with roasted vegetables such as tomatoes and zucchini.