Vidalia is a lovely word, as oldfangled, ornate and homespun as the South itself. Its poetry encompasses buzzing bees, clattering screen doors and the Southern spring in general. Named for the Georgia town whose soil and climate give rise to its unique properties, the great onion reappears each April to lend new sweetness to hushpuppies, succotashes, casseroles, salads and other delicacies of the old wooden table in the yard.
Vidalia season is not least a sign from on high to indulge in onion rings. The conventional onion is merely a temporary placeholder, an understudy, a throne-warmer. Onion rings are no better than vaguely onionesque until the Vidalia arrives to redeem their wan flavor.
At the Grill, onion rings—or more correctly onion straws—arrive in heaping, herb-flecked mounds. The onions are sliced paper-thin, dredged in flour and cornmeal, fried until crisp but not brittle, and tossed with fresh parsley, oregano and—lending a subtle but crucial perfume—thyme. Patrons with eyes glued to the UNC game pluck tendrils of the tangled onions with three fingers and lower them into their widened mouths.
Watts Grocery serves a classic Southern onion ring at lunchtime (dipped in buttermilk, dredged in seasoned cornmeal), while its dinner menu intermittently features the stateroom version: beer-battered wreaths that sit in puffy majesty atop the 12-ounce rib eye.
"The onion ring originally surfaced as an American food as part of a Crisco advertising campaign," said Travis Grant, one of the Grill's new co-owners. "Since then people have done beer batter, the straw style that we serve, you name it. The onion ring is an American invention and it represents American food."
The Vidalia, an icon of Southern Americana no less than the square of cornbread and the bowl of cobbler, only adds to the red, white and blue bunting.
By all means fiddle and improvise. Onion straws, for example, become bistro fare by substituting parsley, lemon and chopped garlic for the garden herbs. Pair them with a piece of delicately grilled fish and a crisp white wine, savoring a certain one-upmanship: the land of Bocuse and Ducasse may have a galaxy of Michelin stars, but it does not have the Vidalia! Alternately, toss the fried onion straws with finely minced jalapeño for a picante Tex-Mex variation.
Watts Grocery redeploys its beer batter to make pub-style fish & chips and prune-stuffed porkbelly fritters (the last word in devil-may-care dining). You can batter and fry anything. I'm partial to deep-fried apple rings dusted with powdered sugar or drizzled with honey. I depend on these to abate the corn-syrup anguish of Halloween.
Watts Grocery's Beer-Battered Onion Rings
2 large yellow onions, peeled, preferably Vidalia
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 bottle Guinness Stout (11.2 oz. or about 1 1/2 cups)
1/3 cup whole milk
1 egg yolk
3 egg whites
Canola oil, for deep frying
Heat the oil to 350 degrees in a deep-fryer or a large cast-iron Dutch oven. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the stout, milk and egg yolk. Whisk until just combined. The mixture should have the consistency of thick pancake batter. Let the mixture sit for 45 minutes at room temperature. Slice the onion into 1/2-inch-thick rings. Beat the egg whites until they hold medium-stiff peaks, and gently fold into the batter until fully incorporated. Coat the onion slices, one at a time, and add to the oil. Fry until golden, about 90 seconds. Serve immediately.
Town Hall Grill's Cornmeal-Dusted Onion Straws
Serves 2 but the recipe can be doubled or tripled
1 large yellow onion, peeled, preferably Vidalia
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. finely ground yellow cornmeal or cornflour
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1 tbsp. finely minced fresh parsley
1 tsp. finely minced fresh oregano
1 tsp. finely minced fresh thyme
Canola oil, for deep frying
Heat the oil to 350 degrees in a deep-fryer or large cast-iron Dutch oven. Mix the flour, cornmeal, salt and chili powder. Mince the herbs and reserve. Using a mandoline, slice the onion into rings 1/8-inch thick. Dredge the onion slices in the flour mixture, shaking off the excess (see notes). Carefully add the onions to the hot oil (see notes) and fry until browned but not thoroughly crisped (the onion should retain a bit of chew), about one minute. Remove the onions from the oil and toss with the herbs. Serve immediately.
Notes: Take maximum precaution when deep frying. Use plenty of oil—about 3 quarts—to ensure a stable temperature, but take care not to overfill the pot (the onion straws will generate some bubbling, creating the potential for overflow). A large and sturdy pot is crucial. When preparing the onion straws, the safest approach is to add half the onions, pause until the oil settles and add the remainder. Alternately, fry the onions in two or more smaller batches.
Depending on the power of your stove and the properties of your pot, the addition of the onion may cause a sudden drop in oil temperature. You can compensate by pre-heating the oil to 360 or 370 degrees. Gauging correct frying temperature may require trial and error. Do not exceed 375 degrees, at which temperature canola oil may begin to smoke.
Flouring the onion straws is easiest with the use of a basket or wide-meshed colander (the basket of a salad spinner is ideal). In a large bowl, toss the onions and the flour mixture until thoroughly coated. Dump the onions into the basket and vigorously shake off the excess flour over the sink or another bowl. They can then be added to the oil en masse or by the handful.