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Rice and Cheese Casserole With Caramelized Onions

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Does a change of seasons herald a change in food cravings?

Does a change of seasons herald a change in food cravings?

A Perfect Autumn Dish

What foods do you crave? If macaroni and cheese is the food-love of your life, could you eat it every day, or do you find yourself yearning for different types of foods as the seasons change?

I think that part of our food desires might revolve around what types of fresh produce are available. Yes, I know that you can purchase a tomato at the grocer any day of the year, but only in summer are they succulent and sweet and (in a word) perfect. And some of our food cravings might also be controlled by climate. Summer heat begs for the cool respite of a crisp cold salad; winter chill desires a steaming mug of chowder.

Today in my little corner of the world we are in the midst of what is called an Indian summer. We awaken to a misty dawn. The air is slightly warm, but there is a heaviness to the air, a dampness that was not there just a few weeks ago. By 10:00 a.m. the mist is gone and the air is warm and fragrant with the scent of the earth. Leaves that had blossomed with fall color are beginning to drop, and their decay has a unique sour/sweet distinct (but pleasant) aroma. In mid-afternoon we feel the warmth of the sun, but our star is now a bit lower on the horizon. Daylight hours are shorter, and as evening approaches the air takes on a bit of a chill.

Although the day was warm, by supper time we are putting on sweaters, and a warm comforting meal is food for the soul.

Casserole Bliss

Rice, caramelized onions, rich Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses—each of these ingredients brings a smile to my face. But all of them together? Absolute bliss!

Irene Lilja shared an amazing recipe for "Sweet Onion Casserole" in the May 2011 issue of Cooking Light. I tried it recently and made a few adjustments in technique and ingredients, but the genius of this recipe is hers. Irene, thank you for sharing your idea for using up those beautiful sweet summer onions.

Necessary Equipment

  • Chopping board
  • Knife for chopping onions
  • Large skillet or sauté pan
  • Large pot for pre-cooking rice
  • Colander (for draining rice)
  • 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish


Original RecipeCarb Diva Recipe

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon olive oil


1 tablespoon butter

4 cups chopped sweet onion (about 1 3/4 pounds)

4 cups chopped yellow onion (about 1 3/4 pounds)

1/2 cup uncooked medium-grain rice

1/2 cup long-grain jasmine rice

2/3 cup 2 percent or low-fat milk

2/3 cup non-fat evaporated milk

1/2 cup Gruyeye cheese, grated

1/2 cup Gruyere cheese, grated

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

non-stock cooking spray

non-stick cooking spray

1/3 cup grated Parmesan

1/3 cup grated Parmesan


1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Scroll to Continue

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Note: My changes are bolded and italicized.

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil and butter; swirl to coat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Place onion in a large bowl. (Note: A 5-minute saute is not enough. See my note below).
  3. Cook rice in a large pot of boiling water 5 minutes. Drain.
  4. Stir rice, milk, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into onions.
  5. Spoon onion mixture into an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle evenly with Parmesan cheese and panko. Cover and bake at 325° for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 5 minutes. Top with parsley, if desired.

Why a 5-Minute Saute Is Not Enough

A 5-minute saute (step 2 in the instructions above) is not enough. Set the heat to low, add a tablespoon of unsalted butter, and slowly caramelize those onions. Allow those onions to transform from savory bites to creamy, luxurious bits full of color and flavor.

What Is caramelization?

Caramelization is a culinary phenomenon that occurs when carbohydrates like sugar are heated to temperatures of 300°F or higher, causing them to turn brown—think of what happens when bread becomes toast or marshmallows on a stick become the yummy middle of s'mores.

Why Is Caramelization Important in This Recipe?

Did you know that there are sugars in onions? By raw weight, they are 89 percent water, 2 percent fiber, and 9 percent carbohydrates. Those carbs are mostly simple sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose. And that, my friends, that is why the onions should be slow-simmered.

Onions are a gift that should be treasured.

When onions are heated slowly, the sugars contained therein break down and the Maillard reaction, one of the most important flavor-producing interactions, begins. This is the science of food and what I find so fascinating.

The molecular structure of the original food (the onion) changes. The first thing you will observe is the color; food that has changed because of the Maillard reaction will be browned—grill marks on burgers, the darkened bits of cheese on the edge of a pizza or an oven-baked casserole of macaroni and cheese, the toasty blackening of marshmallows on a campfire stick.

And then, there is the flavor. Simple water, milk, and sugar become caramel. Sweet potatoes simmered in brown sugar become candy-like.

And, have you ever enjoyed a bowl of French onion soup, food that could be deemed a peasant dish? French onion soup is merely onions, butter, broth, cheese, and a bit of bread. But the low and slow simmering of the onions creates complex, luxurious flavors that are absolutely Heavenly. And that, my readers, is what is required of this dish as well.

Substitutions and Additions

  • Would you like to add meat? You could add a bit of ham, cooked sausage, cooked chicken, or leftover beef roast.
  • Don't like Gruyere or Swiss cheese? Substitute cheddar.

© 2014 Linda Lum

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