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We're in the middle of the "season of fancy cooking," and there are plenty of fancy ingredients to use in all the fancy dishes.

But one of the most indispensable ingredients is the simplest. Who could even think of cooking without onions?

And there are certainly plenty of onions to choose from. Have you walked past a supermarket display lately? It's impressive.

Mark Frain, a produce coordinator for Wegmans and the produce manager at the chain's Sheridan Drive store, says there are often as many as 11 different onion varieties available in the stores.

Onions vary in color (yellow, white, red); they vary in size (tiny pearls for creaming or pickling to larger so-called Spanish types.) They vary in flavor.

Decisions, decisions.

Before you buy onions, you should know where they are going to go.

Some onions are very strong -- they are meant to be cooked. (The robust flavor remains but it is sweetened with time.) These onions will make you cry when you prepare them, but peel them bravely, said Jan van der Heide, a cooperative extension agent in Oswego County.

Don't try to staunch those tears, he said. If your eyes and nose run, that's a good thing. The more pungent the onion, the more flavor it will add.

"You know it will be a good chili when you cry like a baby," van der Heide insists. He cites psychological advantages, too. "A good cry helps get rid of a lot of frustrations and it clears the sinuses too."

For this reason, even when his nose is running, van der Heide uses what are called northern onions. He says northern onions caramelize better, too. They come from colder climates, many from New York State.

Sometimes these onions are simply called "cooking onions." In onion speak, they are "hot" as opposed to "mild." Surprisingly, hot onions have a higher sugar content than mild onions like Spanish or red Italian types.

Northern onions better

Northern onions have other advantages. A recent Cornell University study of 11 varieties found that New York State-grown yellow northern onions contain more potent antioxidants than southern mild onions and may help combat certain cancers. The onions are said to inhibit coronary heart disease and prevent the formation of cataracts, as well.

It's also said that northern onions possess greater antibacterial qualities so they can help prevent colds and flu. Grandma may have been right after all.

So, think before you buy. Do you want your onions sliced raw on your burger? Buy those mild onions, which van der Heide sometimes disparagingly calls "bags of water, like iceberg lettuce." Mild onions do have a higher water content.

Want them for stew, pot roast or, especially, for caramelizing? A pungent or northern onion will do the trick.

How do you know the difference? Frain said suggested use is indicated on store labels. And sometimes onions are actually branded to help you know what you are getting, as well.

Branding is a fairly new development. Several years ago, mild Vidalia onions began to be advertised heavily. They grow in Georgia; you see them clearly identified and marketed in spring. Sometimes you see Oso onions in late winter. This is another mild onion, grown in Peru.

Onions with 'attitude'

But there are brands of northern onions in markets, too, one being grown by a consortium of 14 farmers in Oswego County on Lake Ontario. These onions are known as New York Bolds. Their slogan is "onions with attitude."

That, they have.

Along with pungency, New York Bolds contain about 3 percent more sugar than those Georgian types.

In conventional marketing wisdom, if you've got something you flaunt it, and New York Bolds have been doing just that for the three years they been sold in markets throughout the state. Tops carries them in this area. New York Bolds are sold in states along the Eastern seaboard, too. The flavor is said to stem from the muck soils they grow in.

The consortium says the New York Bold label gives a greater assurance of quality. They are carefully inspected for consistency and storage ability, said Brand Manager Judy Queale- Dunsmoor. So you always know what you are getting. She added that the New York Bold price is close to the price of most good quality northern onions.

The future looks bright for the consortium. As of now, New York Bolds are coming out of Oswego County only. "But," says Queale-Dunsmoor "we hope to expand them to other areas in the state."

Meantime, the group continues to pack the onions in clearly labeled bags with excellent recipes developed by a Syracuse public relations company. Here are a few to keep in mind during the holiday season.

Any good quality northern cooking onion can be used.

Caramelized Onions

4 large cooking onions

2 tablespoons olive oil

teaspoon salt
Peel onions, cut in half vertically and slice thinly along the longitudinal lines.

Pour olive oil in a heavy saute pan. Add onions, stir to coat with oil and spread out evenly. Cook undisturbed until onions start to brown on the bottom. Stir and scrape any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking, stirring only when necessary to prevent burning and encourage rich browning.

When onions are evenly browned, sprinkle with the salt, cover pan and reduce heat to medium low, continue cooking. Watch carefully. The onions may produce enough steam to loosen the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. If not, add a little water, up to a third of a cup, then scrape the bottom of the pan with a metal spatula to dissolve the brown caramelized bits.

Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until onions are a deep honey brown.

Use caramelized onions for gravy or over vegetables. The onions taste good in sandwiches, in omelets and over steak.

Caramelized Onion Pizza

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 to 4 yellow cooking onions, peeled and thinly sliced longitudinally

3 anchovy fillets, optional

3/4 to 1 cup chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 prebaked thin crust pizza shell (12-inch)

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

10 to 12 Nicoise or Greek olives, pitted and halved

1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese in thin shavings
Heat oil in a large saute pan. Add onions and anchovies and cook over medium high heat on top of the stove, stirring occasionally.

When onions are slightly softened and turning a deep honey brown, add one-quarter cup broth. Reduce heat, cover and continue cooking, adding more broth as needed to prevent onions from burning. It should take 25 to 30 minutes to release the sugar in the onions and deepen the flavor. Season with pepper and herbs. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place pizza shell on a baking sheet, cover with mozzarella cheese and top with onions and olives. Bake 12 to 25 minutes. Sprinkle with shavings and bake a minute longer. Cut into wedges and serve.

Bubbling Onion Dip

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 onions, caramelized, as instructed

2 cups shredded Swiss cheese

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon hot sauce or to taste.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix ingredients and spoon into a greased 2-quart baking dish and bake 25 minutes until bubbling. Serve with tortilla chips or crackers. Makes about 4 cups.