Onion strudel: a recipe from a Mediterranean pantry
I was about thirteen when our middle school teacher gave us an essay about our favourite room as homework. I described the pantry. I could have easily talked about the bedroom I was sharing with my sister, where I had all my books and secrets, or the living room where I used to spend most of my days, doing my homework, watching tv, reading, napping on the sofa. But no, I chose the pantry.
It was, and it still is, an under-stair pantry, a tiny dark room with a stamp-sized window. That room looked to me like Ali Baba’s cave, full of treasures and unexpected findings.
That pantry made me feel safe, protected, loved, taken care of.
This is why we chose the pantry as February’s theme in our Newsletter and here on the blog. I even wrote a love letter to the pantry. We are delving into pantry essentials, quick, smart recipes to make with pantry ingredients, and recipes to make preserves to stock up your pantry. I’m a pantry enthusiast, I could talk about this theme for hours.
This is a recipe to show you that you can make savoury pies, tarts and strudels without buying ready-made puff pastry, just by using what you have in your pantry. In this case, I made a strudel dough, a versatile recipe that requires just flour, extra virgin olive oil, and water. I usually use this dough to make both sweet and savoury strudels, relying on pantry and seasonal products for the filling.
Speaking of the filling of this strudel, I opted for some of the most valuable ingredients you can find in a Mediterranean pantry: onions, garlic, dried oregano, anchovies, and olives. Onions and garlic are the basslines of the majority of the Italian recipes, they give depth of flavour, and harmonize all the other ingredients. Used on their own, onions can provide pungency and a sharp note when fresh, and a mellow sweetness then stewed gently over low heat. That’s the path I followed today.
I made my Aunt Teresa’s stewed onions, with tomato sauce, anchovies, oregano, and a pinch of chilli pepper. She usually uses these stewed onions as a stuffing for a pillowy bread, a recipe belonging to the Southern branch of my family, as the use of dried oregano and chilli pepper would reveal. These stewed onions have the taste of my childhood trips to visit relatives in Basilicata, of family gatherings where people speak with a Southern accent.
This strudel has an intense and bold Mediterranean flavour, thanks also to a handful of black olives and some provolone cheese, which you could substitute with mozzarella, scamorza, or just omit it.
For the strudel dough
- 120 grams all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 60 ml warm water
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
For the onion filling
- 120 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 1 kg regular golden onions, about 6
- 3 salt-packed anchovies, or 6 fillets of anchovies preserved in olive oil
- 180 grams tomato purée
- ½ tablespoon dried oregano
- Dried chili flakes
- 1 tablespoon pitted black olives
- 150 grams provolone cheese, cubed
- Fine sea salt
Make the strudel dough.
- Pour the flour on a pastry board, add the salt and the olive oil and then start kneading, gradually adding the warm water. Knead the dough until it is soft and smooth, then wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest in the fridge until the next day.
Make the onion filling
- If you are using salt-packed anchovies, rinse them under cold running water. Gently remove the spines, opening the anchovy and separating it into two fillets. Lay the fillets on a piece of kitchen paper to dry. If you have oil-packed anchovy fillets, just drain them before using.
- Slice the onions finely with a mandolin and stew them on low heat with olive oil, anchovies and salt for about half an hour. Stir often to prevent them from sticking.
- After half an hour add the tomato purée, a generous pinch of dried oregano, and the chilli pepper, and cook for 30 more minutes. They will eventually get soft, sweet and juicy. Let them cool down completely. It can even be made in advance and stored in the fridge.
The next day, make the strudel
- Remove the dough from the fridge and, while it comes back to room temperature, preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F.
- Roll out the strudel dough with a dusting of flour in a wide and very thin sheet of about 50x30 cm/20 by 12-in.
- Move the dough with the help of a rolling pin onto a floured kitchen towel. Place the onion filling on half of the strudel dough, leaving a few centimetres from the edges. Add the olives and the cubed provolone. Close the edges on themselves to hold the filling inside, then wrap the strudel on itself, using the cloth.
- Gently transfer the strudel onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper, open side down, then dust it to remove the excess flour.
- Brush the strudel with a beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Transfer to the oven and bake the strudel for about 30 minutes, until golden. Serve it warm, while the provolone is still soft.
More pantry-inspired recipes with onions, leeks, and garlic
- Pasta with tuna sauce. This is one of my mum’s Sunday dressings for pasta, something I prepare now as a weekly meal. Your favourite pasta – I like short ones with a hole to collect the sauce, like penne or tortiglioni – a can of good quality tuna, a can of tomato sauce – my favourite brands? Petti and Mutti – a white onion, the heat of chilli pepper, and obviously extra virgin olive oil.
- Risotto with leeks and pecorino. A good risotto can be as comforting and nurturing as a hug. A good risotto made with leeks is the hug of your best friend after a rough day, a caress from your grandma, the most soothing dish that you can make with such poor and simple ingredients. Most of the time I also use olive oil instead of butter when making a risotto, but today I decided to respect the well-working combination of leeks and butter to create a creamy winter risotto.
- Focaccia with onions. Focaccia con le cipolle is a recipe from Basilicata, a soft bread stuffed with sweet stewed onions. Whenever Aunt Teresa makes it for birthdays, christenings and lunches with the family, we fight to conquer the last slice. Everyone, without exception, even those who usually avoid onions. Here the onions are cooked slowly for over an hour, so they become sweet and delicate.
- Onion soup. This soup requires a long cooking time, but let me tell you this: each and every single minute you’ll spend listening to the pot simmering on the stove is worth your patience. It takes time to have soft and sweet onions and a thick soup.
- We’ll be sharing our experience and teaching four classes on Food Writing and Food Storytelling at Food. Design dell’esperienza gastronomica (in Italian), at Scuola Holden in Turin, in partnership with Gambero Rosso.
- I read Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen: A Novel of Victorian Cookery and Friendship and loved it. It is the real-life story of Eliza Acton, poet and food writer, and her assistant as they revolutionized British cooking and cookbooks around the world. If you love cookbooks – and I know you do -, well, you have to read this.
- I did an interview with Phoebe Hunt for Italy Magazine, you can read it here: Talking Tuscan Cooking with Giulia Scarpaleggia (premium content).
How Marcella Hazan Became a Legend of Italian Cooking, on The New Yorker. Many of history’s female immigrant chefs and cookbook writers were underappreciated in their day, or rose to fame during their lifetimes only to fall out of public memory after their deaths. Hazan, of course, is not one of those chefs.
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