Know your onions

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The story begins with "Once upon a time;" the recipe begins with "Onions."

Both have the same effect: to set the mood. Onions get right to work scenting the kitchen savory, flavoring the oil sweet, deepening the color and complexity of the dish as it unfurls.

Not that every opening line reads alike. The recipe may suggest a mere sweat: low heat until limp. It may insist on caramelize: low heat all the way to a deep, sticky sweet. It may specify the saute: medium heat, until golden. Or it may brave brown: medium heat until crisp — usually reserved for liver-and-onion duty. Then there's the deep-fry, best known to the onion ring.

I had assumed the onion spectrum ran from pale to sticky to crisp. An assumption, like most, that proved clumsy.

I was enlightened while cooking curry with friends. The recipe I'd been assigned called for onions, brown-fried. Which called for me to look perplexed. And, giving in, to read the instructions.

Brown-fry is unique — or so the cookbook claimed — to Indian cuisine. It sizzles in the zone between saute and deep-fry. Compared with browning, the technique calls for more oil — about 2 tablespoons per cup of onions. It calls for more heat — a medium-high flame. And it calls for more attention — constant stirring until the onions turn a deep crisp/tender brown.

It's a lovely method and yielded a lovely stew. It's good to know that even "Once upon a time" can be refreshed. And refreshing.

Indian lamb and cashew stew

Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 1 hour 15 minutes
Serves: 6

¼ cup vegetable oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
2 pounds ground lamb
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
3 teaspoons garam masala or ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
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