Victor Albisu grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, with a Cuban grandfather who found "all kinds of little ways to make things taste better, brighter and more interesting." As a child, he didn't fully understand why he was tasked with scrubbing down the outdoor grill with a halved onion. He knew for sure only that the other half—ever present on the side of the grill—became a charred delicious thing all its own.
"One day," he says, "I started chopping it up, and it became a part of my existence."
Not only did that onion become a part of his existence—it's also this chef's Secret Weapon. Now the chef/owner of D.C.'s Del Campo and Taco Bamba, with locations in Falls Church and Vienna, Albisu intentionally chars red onions and progressively pulverizes them with balsamic vinegar until the texture turns jammy. The resulting burnt onion jam (see the recipe) brings Albisu's beloved "burnt spectrum of foods" to the table, from "almost-alive" inside pieces to the incinerated outer layers.
"Uneven cooking is interesting to me," he says. "Cooking left to fire—that’s where I live." He's reluctant to praise balsamic, a varietal he rarely saw used growing up among Italians and in professional kitchens. But he promises, "When you take balsamic and put it into hot onions on a chopping board, it takes on a new form. It's elegant." The balsamic lends a deep, dark color to the finished product, making for an intense black swipe on a plate.
So it's time to burn your onions. Here's how you can bring the drama into your favorites this fall.
① Charred Chimichurri
Make a verdant sauce for your meat with oregano, parsley, cilantro, raw onions, garlic, chile flakes and boiling salted water (salmuera, or "brine"). Then add two tablespoons of the burnt onion jam per cup of chimichurri to add both viscosity and shocking color.
This chimichurri works particularly well with grilled meats that can handle aggressive flavoring. Albisu particularly loves to pair raw flavors with burnt ones, making this particular pairing a perfect match. "I love exploring how vegetables burn," he says. So keep that in mind anytime you're handling a raw sauce that would benefit from a stark contrast.
② Sandwich Spread
The onion's natural sweetness accentuates the vinegar, blending and contrasting particularly well with yellow, grainy or even Dijon mustard. Layer them together or blend to taste for flavor that's like honey mustard with a bit of smoke. "You can put it right on a charcuterie board or smear it on a Cuban sandwich," Albisu suggests.
③ Ravioli Filling
Roast pumpkin or winter squash, purée it until smooth and fold in burnt onion jam to taste. Fill your ravioli dough with the silky filling. Finish the dish with browned butter, but instead of adding lemon juice or vinegar to stop the butter from cooking down too far, add more jam; the balsamic will do the trick. Top with chopped fresh sage, then dig in to a dinner that's the epitome of fall.
④ Pizza Base
To make a really "simple and beautiful pizza," brush the jam over rolled-out pizza dough, then top with mozzarella and burnt onions. To push the fall glory a step further, grill the whole lot: Slap the dough on a grill, brush it with olive oil, top with a layer of jam, and add the cheese and onions (and maybe a few tears of basil, too).
⑤ Roll into Skirt Steak
For a steak that's "exactly what you want to eat," brush skirt steak with Dijon and use your hands to sprinkle dots of jam over it. Add a layer of chopped parsley and a generous grating of Parmesan. Then roll it up and grill. "The burnt onions are the thing here," he says. "They give a sweet-smoky flavor on the inside. The Parmesan melts into the Dijon; the Dijon mixes into the burnt onion and parsley." Yep, exactly what we want to eat.
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