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Thanksgiving Pearls

Image of Pearl Onion Gratin
Here’s a perfect side dish for all of our Thanksgiving tables, whether one is cooking at home or looking for a dish to contribute to the family’s annual holiday potluck gathering. Dale Roberts, Melissa’s National Sales Manager in Tampa, shares a scrumptious, borderline decadent pearl onion side dish that will appeal to most of the various dietary disciplines that usually need to be satisfied at these holiday dinners.

“This recipe came to me out of a training session I conducted on some Melissa’s products with staff from one of our largest national retail accounts. That session had included our pearl onion program,” Dale recalled. “Afterwards, the District Director shared that she already makes a delicious and simple casserole with our pearl onions. I had to try it and it’s been a family favorite ever since. Try adding freshly cooked bacon chunks sprinkled over the topping—you can never go wrong with a little bacon! BTW, that same director also instructed all of her stores to build displays featuring our pearls—now that’s a successful training session that produced both a large order as well as this tasty dish!”

This recipe is quick to prepare, and its short ingredient list returns ten-fold in warm, comfort food flavor! Plus, if one is cooking for a group, it can made ahead or even frozen, then reheated. Same for a potluck; your host can pop the casserole into a hot oven or zap it in the microwave if the kitchen is too cluttered. While pearl onions are slightly sweeter than regular-sized onions, I used Melissa’s assorted pack of red, white and yellow pearls for both a splash of color in the dish as well as the slight variation of sweetness that the red pearl onion offers over the other two.

Pearl onions have always been a traditional ingredient during the holiday season. While usually found simmering as a secondary flavor component in pot pies and stews, this dish features them as a standalone veggie. Small enough to be consumed whole, the tiny bulbs add a pop of juicy onion goodness in one bite! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these tender baby onions are slathered in smooth-melting Swiss Gruyere cheese. Not every cheese turns gooey when cooked, but the Swiss are the inventors of the fondue, so they know their melting cheeses. Gruyere is an ideal cheese to use when the goal is to be nice ‘n creamy. This pearl onion gratin casserole checks the CREAMY box most definitely—with a thick felt tip for emphasis!
Image of Dale Roberts
Dale Roberts was in the grocery retail industry for twenty-seven years before making the transition about seven years ago to Melissa’s and the business of wholesale perishables. Now headquartered in Tampa, Florida, Dale works exclusively with two of the company’s largest national retail grocery chain accounts, serving these clients' operations throughout the Southeastern states. He collaborates with both customers’ entire company structure at every level—from Senior Leadership to Category/Sourcing managers, as well as individual Regional and District Managers—to update, suggest and implement seasonal promotional opportunities from Melissa’s extensive product line of fresh and processed-from-fresh items.

“It’s a very competitive business, so we will do everything from high-level corporate meetings to in-store sampling—whatever it takes to separate the brand from the competition. In fact, one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is educating shoppers at store level and introducing good foods to a shopper, one-on-one,” Dale explained, then continued with a caveat; “Most recently, the biggest challenge with selling our products is inflation. Budgets are having to be tightened, which results in a very price-conscious consumer who cuts back on variety in the process. The economics will, no doubt, swing the other way again, as it always does. Right now, though, it can be challenging to convince our clients that their shoppers still will pay for superior quality products and variety.”

After stints representing Melissa’s in San Diego and Seattle, Dale and his family have now settled in the Tampa, Florida region. The area fits right in with Dale’s natural attraction and passion for anything to do with water, which is where he can be found when he is done with his business day and every weekend.

“I would say that I really am a Water Boy. Surfing, fishing, diving/spearfishing, boating, wakeboarding, jet skiing, or just relaxing in the Gulf. I have always loved being in the ocean or on a lake. I started to surf in San Diego with friends as a teenager and fell in love with everything about the ocean. In my 20’s I moved to Las Vegas and was introduced to Lake Meade—as in boating, wakeboarding, and jet skiing. I even spent a little time living in a lake house in Georgia, where I fished and jet-skied every chance I could. Then, in 2019, we moved to FL, where we are now just a short 1.8-mile golf cart ride to beach. Love every minute of this paradise!”

That cart is also usually occupied by wife Christina, 7-year-old son Rusty and in the cushioned rear basket, Jack, a young Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, aka Sir Jack. Since Dale is obviously a good cook, the question was posed: If you could invite any famous person, living or from history, to enjoy a meal at your own table— who would that be and why?

“Actually, someone that few people would even know is Danny Elfman. He was the lead singer for Oingo Boingo, one of my favorite bands in the 80’s and early 90’s. I loved how he could play so many different instruments and the band was more like an orchestra. After Oingo Boingo, he then started composing music for films like PeeWee Herman’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissor Hands and Nightmare Before Christmas. His musical style is unique and recognizable. If I sat down for dinner, and maybe a few beers, I’m sure he would have some great stories from over the years.”

And Dale could reciprocate by serving a few Pearls of his own!

Pearl Onion Gratin
Serves 4
Image of Pearl Onions
Ingredients
3 Melissa’s Assorted Pearl Onions, 8 oz.
4 tablespoons salted butter
4 tablespoons white flour
2 cups half & half
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground mustard
Dash of nutmeg
2 cups Gruyere cheese, divided

Topping:
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups bread crumbs
1½ teaspoon thyme

Preparation
Image of boiled onions
Peeling pearl onions: slice off root end. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Boil onions for a minute or so, then drain and transfer to an ice water bath to cool. Rinse again. The skin of each onion will come off easily with a pinch.
Image of boiled onionns
Place peeled onions in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Heat for 6-8 minutes or until onions are tender. Drain well and set aside.
Image of melted cheese
Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add flour, stirring smoothly and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Slowly pour in half & half over medium heat, continue to stir until thickened. Add salt, pepper, ground mustard and nutmeg. Stir in the cheese and continue stirring until melted.
Image of onions and cheese sauce
Gently stir in the onions.
Image of onion sauce on baking dish
Pour onion mixture into a greased bake pan. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Mix together all topping ingredients and then sprinkle on top of the onions evenly. Bake at 350°F uncovered for 25-30 minutes. The topping will turn golden. Serve family style!
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