Leslie and I were in Manhattan between Christmas and New Year’s, primarily to visit with family but partly to visit to the Museum of Modern Art. I was especially interested in viewing an exhibit called Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, which details advances in kitchen technology and design in the first half of the 20th century. If you have any interest in the history of cooking tools and kitchen design, this is a great exhibit to check out. It runs through March 14th – details can be seen here.
We didn’t have much time at the museum, but after viewing the kitchen exhibit we took a quick spin through the Modern art wing. Before long, we found ourselves in front of Starry Night, arguably Van Gogh’s most famous painting. After seeing countless prints, posters, and other reproductions, it was pretty cool to be standing in front of the real thing. We were in a room that included works by Seurat, Kandinsky, Picasso, and Klimt among many others. As Leslie put it, it was overwhelming to be standing in front of such famous works of art.
After we left the museum, I got a hankering for one of my favorite New York City treats – a street vendor hot dog slathered with onion sauce! It’s hard to find this concoction outside of New York, which is too bad because the stuff is awesome.
A bit of history: until the 1960s there was no standard recipe for this onion sauce. Every pushcart vendor had their own recipe and made it from scratch every night, which was time-consuming. That all changed in the mid-60s when the owner of Tremont Foods (now part of the Sabrett brand) tapped food scientist Alan Geisler to create a recipe for a mass-produced version. It very quickly became the de facto standard for hot dog vendors and eliminated the need for them to make their own. These days, when you get a hot dog with onion sauce, it’s a sure bet the sauce was made by Sabrett. In fact, throughout the city many of the hot dog stands are adorned with blue and yellow umbrellas emblazoned with the Sabrett logo. Too bad my hot dog came from a vendor affiliated with a different brand, but no matter. It’s a certainty they served me Sabrett onion sauce atop my very delicious hot dog.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be from New York to enjoy New York-style onion sauce. For that matter, you don’t even need to be in New York – you can order some through the mail from any of the companies listed here.
The beauty of this sauce is its stimulation of all the flavor senses – a sweet-sour-salty-bitter-umami combination of tomato paste, cooked onions, sugar, vinegar, salt, and spices. There are several recipes available online that you can follow such as this one or this one. My version is similar to the second one but has a few deviations.
To make your own, slice an onion in half lengthwise, then cut off the ends and peel off the skin. Cut the halves into thin slices and cook in several tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent. Stir in a couple tablespoons of ketchup along with an equal amount of water. Sprinkle in a few dashes of chili powder, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a pinch of garam masala (it’s an Indian spice blend – you can find it at an Indian markets or in the international section of your supermarket). If you don’t have garam masala, substitute with a pinch of nutmeg. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, adding extra water if the sauce gets too thick. Serve atop your favorite hot dogs and enjoy. Fuhgeddaboudit!