Pearl onions are just regular onions picked when they are very small - bite-sized, in fact. Just like big onions, these globes come in white, yellow, and purple. Their tiny size makes them perfect for roasting, braising, stewing, or pickling to make cocktail onions. The Joy of Cooking says they were "made to be swathed in white sauce"; this sounds like one of those childhood favourites, but it wasn't in my mother's culinary repertoire, so I've never had it.
Pearl onions are generally peeled before being used in recipes. To do this, first cut off the root end, then drop them into boiling water for about two minutes. Drain well, then plunge into ice water for a few minutes. Drain again, then squeeze the skins off by pinching at the tip; the onion should slide right out of its papery casing. If the tips are dry, trim them, and cut a shallow X in the root end to prevent the centre of the onion from popping out while cooking.
To make those creamed onions, simmer peeled onions in water for about 10 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, make a bechamel sauce. Add onions to sauce, pour into an ovenproof dish, and bake in a moderate oven for about 15 minutes.
Here's another lovely pearl onion preparation that I've adapted from a cookbook of recipes from Renaissance Tuscany. The book, Florentines: A Tuscan Feast, features many recipes that include fruits in a savoury context, a style of cooking that I didn't grow up with, but have learned to love as it has come back into vogue recently. I haven't made many of these recipes, but this one I prepare frequently. It's a fabulous side dish with roast beef or roast chicken.
Braised Pearl Onions and Grapes
You will need:
What to do:
Peel the onions (see above). Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, then add the onions, season with salt and pepper, add 1 tblsp/15 ml sherry, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes; add the remaining sherry as liquid evaporates. Add grapes and cook for five more minutes, stirring frequently. Serve immediately.