Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Here I am again with another recipe from Searching for Italy with Stanley Tucci. In Season 2, he showcased fare from Calabria. Amongst the many wonderful dishes featured, I was most intrigued by the Red Onion (Tropea onion or Torpedo onion) and Spaghetti dish. ‘Cipolla di Tropea’ or the Tropea onion is Italy’s most famous and appreciated type of onion. The main growing area for these onions is south of the town of Tropea, around Ricardi and Capo Vaticano, in Calabria. However, these onions are grown all over the region, but the ones planted closest to the sea are the sweetest because of the sandy soil and the mild climate. A good Tropea onion is a lot sweeter than most other red onions. But this isn’t because they have a higher sugar content. Actually, what they have is a much lower pyruvic acid content. This is what makes them less pungent and allows the natural sugars to come through. According to Calabrians, a good Tropea onion can be eaten like an apple! Italian cooks love them for their sweet taste and the fact that they don’t make you ‘cry’ when you peel and chop them! During the episode, Mr. Tucci was coaxed to bite into one of the raw onions as if it were an apple. He did and was smitten! Oh, how sweet it was. My friend Sally is a food maven, so I set her on a mission to find out where I could source these onions. It took her but an hour to get back to me. It happens that there is a vendor out of England that sells these onions. Unfortunately, they do not ship outside the UK. In my own search, I found a site, Farm to People, located in Brooklyn, NY. I contacted them by email to inquire if they had Tropea onions in stock as advertised on their site. Again, it was unfortunate because they already sold out of their supply and were not expecting another shipment from Italy. In further research, I found that you could “almost” replicate the taste using a sweet red onion or a sweet white onion. Somewhat disappointed, I decided to move forward and make two versions of this pasta dish using both red and white sweet onions. One was a winner! The original recipe from the episode featuring this dish is listed below. Some aspects of the recipe were not clear. To clarify and improve the recipe, I added the changes that are listed with asterisks.
Tropea Onions and Spaghetti
Ingredients 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 4 Tropea onions (*substitute with 2 sweet red onions or 2 white sweet onions) 1-2 cups vegetable stock (*homemade if possible – see my recipe below) Ricotta salata cheese (*about 1/2 cup, grated) Olive oil, Calabrian preferred Salt Basil 1 lb spaghetti Preparation 1. Trim and discard the root ends of the onions. Peel and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove
the outer layer(s) of the onion if it looks tough. Slice the halves lengthwise into very thin
strips. 2. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot. Add the garlic and cook until
fragrant. 3. Add onions and continue cooking over medium heat. *(cook until onions are translucent
about 15-20 minutes) 4. Add stock, a little at a time, and simmer until onions are cooked down and creamy. Taste
and season with salt if needed. 5. In the meantime, cook pasta in boiling water to al dente. Add cooked pasta to the pan with
the onions and toss to coat.*(I added the cheese to the onion mixture before I added the
pasta allowing the cheese to make the sauce creamy.) 6. Add chopped basil and freshly grated ricotta salata to the pan. 7. Plate pasta and drizzle with olive oil.
Basic Vegetable Stock
Ingredients 1 tablespoon of olive oil 1 med zucchini, peeled and cut into 1” chunks 2 stalks celery, cut in 1” chunks 2 carrots, cut into 1” chunks 1 med onion, cut in quarters (leave a layer of skin on) 3 cloves of garlic, minced Handful of whole mushrooms 6 sprigs of parsley 2 large bay leaves 1 teaspoon salt 2 quarts of water Preparation 1. Heat oil in a soup pot over high heat. Add zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, garlic and
mushrooms. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables soften and begin to brown, about 10
minutes. 2. Add salt, water, parsley and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer
uncovered for 45 minutes. The results: My first attempt used California red sweet onions and my homemade vegetable stock. I encourage you to make it as it has so much more flavor than store bought stock. Thereafter, I followed the original recipe but did not incorporate my asterisk notes in parenthesis. This red onion version was tasty, but I felt it lacked something.
My second attempt used sweet white Vidalia onions and my homemade vegetable stock. In this version, I incorporated the notes in parenthesis that I added to the original recipe. Combining the ricotta salata into the onion mixture before adding the spaghetti was the trick. This allowed the cheese to melt into the onion sauce and coat the spaghetti. WOW, this worked out so much better. The sauce was creamier, and the end result was quite delicious.
Conclusion: I strongly recommend that you make a homemade vegetable stock and add the ricotta salata into the onion sauce prior to adding the pasta. In the end, the winner was the white sweet onion version. It was oh so delicious!