Bucket of onions

Given the shortage of onions during WW2, it’s not surprising that there aren’t many wartime recipes in which they play a starring role, but I did manage to find three – all of which required the onions to be parboiled. I’d never boiled an onion before, but we gave it a go, and (to save on fuel!) I boiled six onions at once in order to try all three recipes.

The first was from Marguerite Patten’s book: We’ll Eat Again

Savoury Onions:
Cooking time: 1.25 hrs, Serves 4


Marguerite Patten's savoury onions

Ingredients:

4 medium onions, peeled
salt and pepper
1/2 cup (118 ml) soft breadcrumbs
1 tsp chopped sage
2 oz (57 g) cheese, grated
1 egg
1/2 oz (14 g) margarine, melted

(Wartime recipes tend to mention teacups, but I used American measuring cups, and I’ve added in metric conversions.)

Method:

  1. Boil the onions in salted water for 30 minutes.
  2. Lift the onions out of the pan, reserving the cooking liquid.
  3. Remove the centres from the onions. Chop finely and combine with the breadcrumbs, sage, cheese and egg. Season to taste and use the mixture to fill the onions.
  4. Put the filled onions into a casserole with 1/2 cup of the onion stock.
  5. Brush the onions with the melted margarine.
  6. Cover and bake for 45 minutes in a moderately hot oven.

We halved the quantities for this one, to make two portions. It turns out that boiled onions are very slippery, and hard to work with, but I persevered! Taking the middles out was a little tricky, and refilling them with the gloopy egg mixture was messy. I ended up with more filling than would fit in the onions, which seems like an obvious result considering you’re mixing the removed onion with more stuff. If I did it again I would probably remove the centres of the onion and use that for something else; you don’t really need onion in the filling mixture.

I couldn’t find our casserole dish (which may well have gone off to the charity shop in a clearout, it got used so rarely!), so this ended up cooking in a baking dish, covered in foil, which worked just fine. Boiling for 30 mins and then baking for 45 mins gives you very well cooked onions, so next time I would reduce the boiling time so that they’re just parboiled, and go from there.

However, you do end up with a nice vegetable side dish at the end of it, and Ryan gave it a “happy to eat again” verdict, so it’s a good one recipe to have on hand if you have an onion glut!

Don’t throw away the rest of the water you boiled the onion in. It’s basically onion stock, and can be used for soups, etc,. It lasts for a few days in the fridge (or you can freeze it), and ours formed the base for a chicken casserole later in the week. During the war, that extra onion flavour would have been very valuable.


The next recipe came to me via Jennifer Davies’ The Wartime Kitchen and Garden, but was originally published in a Central London Electricity Ltd ‘Cheerful Rationing’ card in June 1944.

Scrambled Onions
Serves 2


Scrambled onions

Ingredients:

2 onions, parboiled
1 cup (235 ml) breadcrumbs
1/2 cup (118 ml) milk
1 oz (28g) cheese, grated
salt and pepper
4 rounds of toast
parsley, chopped

Method:

  1. Finely chop the boiled onions (easier said then done, they’re slippery!)
  2. Put the chopped onions into a saucepan with the breadcrumbs and the milk, and bring to the boil.
  3. Stir in the grated cheese and seasoning.
  4. Served on toast, garnished with chopped parsley.

The notes say that this makes a useful supper dish, and can be made with leeks when they are in season.

I should say that I made the breadcrumbs from the end of a loaf, using our stick blender. It doesn’t take very long. It made more breadcrumbs than I needed; the rest are in the freezer for now.

I was really dubious about this recipe, from start to finish. I know how to make sauces with a roux, and from cornflour, but I’d never made a sauce with breadcrumbs. In fact, bread sauce is a traditional British accompaniment to roast poultry, and survives from the the Middle Ages, when bread-thickened sauces were common. It was probably a way of using up stale bread, a thrifty idea that was clearly useful to WW2 cooks. (There are records of 10 shilling fines being handed down for wasting bread!)

And I have never been that big a fan of things on toast. Cheese on toast is fine, but most other things make the toast soggy, which I don’t like; I usually have them toast adjacent. So I have to admit I let Ryan tuck into this one first, to get his verdict. He liked it, so I tucked in. And it’s actually very nice! We’d be happy to have this one for lunch again 🙂 The breadcrumbs disappear right into the sauce, you wouldn’t know that they were there, so thickening things with breadcrumbs is a new skill we have learned!


I had two cooked onions left over, and my intention was to use them for this recipe, which is from Wartime Farm by Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman and Alexander Langlands.

Boiled onions with white sauce
Serves 8

Ingredients:

2 lb (900 g) onions, peeled
1 pint (568 ml) milk
1 oz (28g) cornflour
finely chopped herbs

Method:

  1. Boil the whole onions in water for 45 minutes, or until tender.
  2. Gently heat the milk, but do not allow it to boil.
  3. Add a little cold water to the cornflour, and mix into a smooth paste. Pour this into the milk and stir over a low heat until the sauce thickens.
  4. Stir in your chopped herbs, and pour over the onions.

Varying the herbs would change the flavour of this one, which would have helped to relieve the tediousness of the diet somewhat, and would have enabled cooks to use whatever was growing on their wartime allotment.

I didn’t get round to trying this one – partly because my boiled onions were long since cold and I wasn’t quite sure how to heat them up, and partly from lack of enthusiasm for cooking caused by pressures of work. So my remaining boiled onions went into the chicken casserole (and were very nice). One for the future, perhaps.


Onion-flavoured footnote:
Last, but not least, I found a wartime hint for saving onion. Nowadays we can just chuck half an onion into the fridge in a plastic pot, but in the absence of that option the wartime cook was encouraged to slice any leftover onion into thin rings, lay them out on a baking tray and dry them in the oven once the main meal was cooked and the oven was turned off. We tried it, and it works nicely for thin slices. Any chunky bits from the middle I chopped up separately and used fresh. The onion slices took two cooking sessions to dry out reasonably well; it would probably have taken 3 to get them super crispy, and we don’t use the oven that often, so I just put them in the fridge.

I rehydrated them with a few drops of water, and used them in a stir-fry, and they were good. Of course, these days people have electric dehydrators!