One of the treasures at the farmers market this time of year are cipollini onions. Pronounced chip-oh-LEE-nee, cipollini onions are Italian pearl onions known for their small, flat, disk shape and pale, thin papery skins. Cipollinis are sweeter onions, having more residual sugar than more common white or yellow onions, but not as much as shallots. Cipollinis have a unique sweet and mild flavor profile, and are often times roasted to bring out their sweetness.
One of the things I like about cipollini onions is that the flatter shape and smaller diameter make them friendly for roasting. I like the small ones to put into my pot roast and braised chicken dishes, and they are nice with roasted potatoes. If I can find a bunch of them about one inch to one and a half inches, I like to braise them with some vegetable stock and balsamic (white or regular) vinegar. Once the onions are cooked, I remove them from the liquid and then reduce the liquid until it is thickened and syrupy. Shallots and cipollinis braised together are delicious.
I like to roast the larger ones whole. Because they are flatter, cipollinis will cook through evenly. Try roasting a round brown onion and chances are the outside will be really done and the center will still be a bit crunchy. Cipollinis will cook through before the outer layers char.
For larger cipollini, use a melon baller to hollow out the center a bit. Sauté what you remove with some diced mushroom, and maybe a little spinach, or diced carrot and celery. Get it nice and soft and add a minced clove of garlic and some herbs. Toss in a handful of homemade breadcrumbs and toss to mix well. Remove to a bowl and then give the onions a quick sauté for color. Put the onions into an oven-proof dish, then spoon the onion breadcrumb mixture in to the onions so it heaps up a bit. Drizzle a little stock or wine (or both) around the base of the onions. Cover the dish and roast in a 425°F oven, for 10 minutes. Check to see if the onions are soft and just about cooked through. If they are not, recover and give them another five minutes. Then uncover when onions are tender all the way through, and cook another few minutes until the stuffing gets a little crisp on top. These are great as starters or side dishes.
Cipollinis can be tough to peel. If I am only using one or two, I just slice through the root end, taking most of the root off, leaving just enough to hold the onion together. Then I slice through the onion and use a sharp paring knife to cut out the top end. Alternately, I also use a melon baller to hollow out the top.
When I need to prep a bunch of these onions, I bring a large pot of water to a boil, toss in a handful of salt, and get an ice bath ready in the sink. I remove as much of the papery outside skin as will come off easily, and then I toss in the onions just long enough to loosen the remaining skin. Lift them out of the water and immediately put them in the ice bath to arrest the cooking. This makes getting the inner skin off much easier. By the way, this is absolutely the best method for peeling pearl onions. I find that peeling them in advance works well, and if you keep them cold in an airtight box or bag you can peel them a couple days ahead. It is the sort of thing you can do while watching a movie or talking with friends and having coffee. Doing it this way makes the chore of peeling them seem less onerous.
Cipollini onions are a little bit of extra work, but add a great look to a dish and are great tasting. You can find cipollinis at the farmers market at T & L Coke Farms and Pinnacle.