For just about everyone, the term “comfort food” applies specifically to the foods we learned to love during childhood. For me, that’s the made-from-scratch foods I learned in my grandma’s kitchen, including applesauce, soft molasses cookies and bread pudding. For my husband, Les, it’s pretty much all the foods you can only find in a Jewish deli and on the streets of New York. I’ve grown to love many of these foods myself—the bagels, the knishes, the in-house pastrami from Katz’s deli and of course, the pizza (am I the only one hearing angels sing right now?).
Any true New Yorker will admonish you for assuming you could just pick up a bag of Lender’s and call it “close enough.” The best bagels are apparently made with NYC water, but we are thankful to have a very good option for them in our home city. Then there’s the matter of pizza, but let’s not even start on that, though I’m proud to report we’ve finally perfected our at-home pies to nearly the level of Les’s high standards. And although hot dogs (even the Kosher, all-beef kind) are readily available in every corner of these United States, there’s no match for a good, old-fashioned New York hot dog. And for one main reason. The Spanish onion sauce.
This stuff is simple enough, just sliced onions cooked in a thin, lightly spiced tomato sauce. But like any food that’s part of the very fabric of your life, it’s the memory of it that means something. You want it to taste the way you remember it. When I finished this batch of onion sauce, I cautiously asked Les to give it a taste and tell me what it needed. Last time, it was “pretty close,” so imagine my relief (and utter joy) when he licked the spoon and said, “Yep, that’s it!” Pardon me while I do the h-a-p-p-y dance. And though I’m only from “upstate” (not the same as New York, he reminds me, ad nauseum), and I don’t have my own early memories of this onion sauce, I have to say, it’s pretty darn tasty, and super easy to make. If this is all it takes to elevate his happy, I’m golden.
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion (about the size of a tennis ball)
3 Tbsp. tomato ketchup (preferably one made with real sugar)
2 pinches chili powder* (see notes)
Pinch of dried, crushed red pepper*
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup water
*Chili powder is an ingredient that is wildly inconsistent, because different brands have different formulas and sometimes high amounts of salt. Use the most “neutral” chili powder you have, or substitute whatever makes you happy. For my most recent batch of onion sauce, I swapped out both noted spices for about 1 tsp. of the oil poured off a jar of Trader Joe’s “Chili Onion Crunch.” This earned an enthusiastic thumbs up from my New York-born taste tester. Don’t be shy about experimenting with the stuff in your cabinet—it’s how I’ve found all my best recipes.
Cut the onion in half lengthwise. With flat side down, slice the onion into 1/4” crescent-shaped slices. For this recipe, I find it better to have similar-sized pieces of onion, rather than ring slices.
Heat a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil, then add onion slices and saute for about 8 minutes until softened and slightly translucent. Mix together the ketchup, spices, salt and water, and add to the onions. Stir to combine and bring to a slight boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Much of the liquid will evaporate, and you’ll be left with silky onions glistening in a light, tomato-y glaze.
Quite simply—it’s real Nu Yawk daawg sauce.