How An Onion Saved A Marriage

It was usually my mother who did the cooking.  She had a solid repertoire of recipes that would loop every 10 days or so.  They were tasty and comfortingly predictable. She would take her position steadfastly at the stove night after night, not always enthusiastically but always faithfully.

But Sundays were different.  I don’t know whether it was because listening to Father Rizzolo’s regressive sermons left her in a funk, or because she seemed to take it as a personal affront that the congregation didn’t like to sing, (it was true, they didn’t, except for our family), or whether after six days of cooking for an only mildly appreciative crowd, she’d simply grown tired of the chore, but on Sundays she’d make it abundantly clear that she’d had enough.  If we wanted to eat, someone else was going to have to make that happen.

This is where Dad stepped in. His Sunday cooking not only saved us from hunger, but it most likely saved a marriage. He had an extensive repertoire of mental recipes, though a strong aversion to following written ones, so we never really knew (nor did he) what we might get until the dish was complete.

His greatest contribution was Soup, and the finest of these was Vegetable Beef Barley.  I am convinced that his was better than anyone else’s because of one ingredient. My Dad was not afraid of intense flavors and believed that not only did most cooks not taste their food enough to realize how bland it was, but that any food could be made better with onions.

Lots of them.  He would gather the large yellow globes from the red nylon mesh bag in the bottom of the drawer next to the potatoes.  He would chop them coarsely (he was not a man of precision), throw them into the sizzling oil, add the broth, the vegetables (never leaving out the dark, leafy, celery tops which he claimed was where all the flavor and nutrients were and that it was a sin that so many people threw them out), the barley, the week’s leftover beef, and herbs.  He would make the soup hours before it was time to eat since the other mistake cooks make (according to him, which I have now adopted as Truth), is to not let the food sit long enough to allow the flavors to blend and deepen.

Once that flavor point was attained, we’d gather at the table and devour his creation. And though there was always someone who might pick out the beef, or the barley or a vegetable they didn’t like that week, no one ever picked out the onions.

(Here’s the recipe as well as a visual trip through the soup’s construction and end result.)

A quick sidebar on onions: Unlike most vegetables, onions are comprised largely of fructose and therefore caramelize easily and become sweet. The strong sulfury taste in a raw onion, is there to deter hungry animals.  It also deters some humans (especially adherents of raw food) who believe onions to be toxic. However, for every “study” that shows adverse effects, you will find three more touting the plant’s benefits, such as how it can reverse osteoporosis.  My take: if you consume a moderate amount, I would have no concerns about toxocity (especially cooked), but if you avoid them you are missing out on what my Dad (and thousands of other cooks) have long known – that you can not make a great soup without them.

What’s your “this-always-makes-it-better” cooking trick?

Photo: Left behind. © Michelle Madden

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  • Cynthia

    There is not a single soup I’ve ever tasted that I didn’t think tasted better on day 2! I agree that letting it sit on the stove is critical but I also try to “age” soups overnight…

  • Molly @ the F-spot

    It’s a rainy day in San Francisco and I’ve just fixed a vegetarian cassoulet for dinner. I had it simmering on the stove before noon so that all those flavors have a chance to get to know each other over the next several hours. The recipe is from (, made with a few modifications from reviewers. I added the fire roasted tomatoes, I used veggie broth instead of water, and I added a handful of fresh spinach. Comfort food!

  • michelle

    This soup looks amazing! Not sure I’ll ever be able to find celery as green as the one in the photo, but if not, I’m still inspired to recreate this … Thanks for sharing it!

  • Isabel

    Sounds delicious, and so true. Thanks for sharing the story, and I love that you fit in some great and surprising food facts as usual!

  • danielle

    I’ve just recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying it. I agree onions make everything better (and garlic). Since I am a vegetarian, I’ve found that sautee’ing your base veggies in butter will help make the stock a little hardier (if you’re not using premade stock). Recently in my pot – baking pan in my case – I made a polenta casserole on a whim with fake sausage, spinach, a little tomato sauce, some zucchini & some grated gouda.

  • Juliana

    What a nice insight into your family life, Michelle.

  • amhp

    Thanks for sharing! My mom boycotted cooking over the weekend too. She would remind us that everyone gets a day off. My dad would fill in with shepherd’s pie or hamburgers and Lipton’s chicken soup. On really lucky nights he made milkshakes.

    • Rick Lee

      We used to have hot dogs on Saturdays – Mom’s day off. It was the only “un-food” we every had in our family…. perhaps my Dad’s acknowlegement that we lived in Canada not England! (Hate to think what was mixed up in those sausages!)

      Now, we do a soup like your’s Michelle and like you, we ALWAYS saute the onions (from our veg patch) to begin. Then its whateer is in the refrigerator! And its ALWAYS better the day after – and the soup never lasts past day two – its simply too good.

  • 6512 and growing

    I enjoy your writing and tips. Caramelizing onions definitely makes everything yummy. My newest trick is roasting: tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, beets, garlic, onions…oh yeah.

    *And I drop very obvious hints to my family to praise my cooking daily. And I’m silly enough to fall for it.

  • Pat Katz

    Buddhists are advised to avoid onions as they “disturb the peace of mind” this applies to others in the allium family.

    • Michelle

      How do they disturb “peace of mind”? I’ve always heard that raw foodies, Buddhists and other “purists” have had an aversion to onions, but I have to admit, I’ve never really “got” the logic. Surely if Buddha had had my Dad’s soup, he’d be of a different mind on the subject….

  • Mickey

    Lovely post. Reminds me of my grandmother’s (“Mimi’s”) stew–tenderest, juiciest shreds of meat I’ve ever tasted–and waiting for the onions to turn transluscent in my mother’s spaghetti sauce–just before the best part, when the ground beef went in. You could always tell we we were going to have spaghetti by the smell of onions cooking in, yes, EVOO (extra virgin olive oil). Happy nights.

  • Kirsten

    I put chile powder in pretty much everything – it just adds that “certain something” that makes everything extra special. Garlic of course is also a favorite. My belief is that if people can still stand to be near you – you haven’t had enough garlic. My husband on the other hand, is unable to eat it in any quantity without serious gaseous consequences…

  • Emily Elizabeth – Kisses for Breakfast

    Thanks for the tip about celery! I saved the “trash” from some celery and other veggies the other day to make vegetable stock and now I’m confident it will taste good (with more onions of course)! I tend to add bananas to things a lot. I add them to most of my baked goods to sweeten them without using sugar.

    • Michelle

      Great tip about bananas as natural sweetener when baking – the other thing I’ll sometimes add is unsweetened applesauce (but then cut the liquid significantly since it brings so much of its own).

      • Emily Elizabeth @ Kisses for Breakfast

        I wanted to report back since you’re post influenced my cooking… After making the vegetable stock I mentioned above, I also made a pureed root vegetable soup the other day with it and I think it added a lot of flavor! Thank you for sharing your dad’s wisdom. 😉

        • Michelle

          Am so glad! Ya, celery leaves are pretty indispensable when it comes to soups. I made a broccoli one yesterday and tossed in a handful of the “foliage” which made it FAR more pungent and tasty.

  • Dawn

    Butter. Butter (also) makes it better!

  • Caroline

    Michelle – that is the best idea ever! Not just the soup, but going forward I should boycot Sunday cooking too. Thanks for sharing the soup story and recipe! Perfect for a cold Canadian winter night.

  • Lauren C.

    I love this story and the soup recipe sounds terrific — so simple and easy but with all the right flavors! Thanks for the tip about celery leaves, too. Although I don’t have a garden of my own, I get celery a lot in my CSA and have not been in the habit of using the leaves, but now I will. Yum!

  • ctb

    Wow! I’d never heard about onions being considered ‘toxic’. All I’ve ever read about is their virtues (cold cures, etc.) – & aren’t they high in quercetin as well? I esp. like using the green leaves of onions, shallots, chives for the added vitamins.

    & perhaps your mother was having her ‘day of rest’ on Sundays?

  • Brooke

    I add paprika, preferably smoked, to everything! Especially in spaghetti sauce a little paprika and red pepper flake. Delicious!

  • Kim

    Leeks. I use them far more often than I do onions. And pancetta. A significant number of my recipes start with “Take some pancetta…”

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  • Blair

    I had to chuckle. Growing up my mom fixed a meal after chruch on Sunday but she DID NOT cook sunday evening. While I wonder what health benefits we received we were probably the envy of the neighborhood. In the summer we had icecream for sunday dinner and in the winter popcorn (home popped of course).

    And I defiantely agree, soups taste better the longer they sit. But if pasta is involved it tends to get over saturated. My trick is to reserve broth from your soup and boil a fresh batch of pasta with each serving. My secret whenever I boil anything? bay leaves . . . a hefty dose of bay leaves . . . chili, soup, potatoes, pasta, you name it!

  • Andrea

    My dad did a lot of cooking on Sunday’s too – what a great memory! His favorite was a huge cauldron of spaghetti sauce with perfectly shaped meatballs. He was fastidious about shaping them and YES it had to simmer all day! He would blast classical music from the now seemingly archaic sound system he rigged and would work his heart out making that sauce. We always only ate 2 meals on Sunday, breakfast after church and then an early evening meal, so by the time dinner was served we were famished! Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

  • Laura Ditthardt

    Love your blog…thanks! In my circle of life I am usually the “giver” of tips, I so appreciate getting them too! Three things I have found as foundational for great soups…they are boullion paste for all broths, squeezing fresh lemon or lime in at the end and pressure cooking. I love the pressure cooker because it marries the flavors without cooking the life out of the veggies! :)