What would good food be without onions? Historians agree that cultivating onions was prevalent over 5,000 years ago but cannot determine where in the world they originated. There are hundreds of varieties of onions, and onions are usually grown by type: white, yellow, red, spanish. Each variety has distinct savory flavors, different storage propensities, but is eaten both cooked and raw somewhere in the world.
Onions are in the allium family, related to garlic. They, too, are a super-nutrient, containing over 150 phytochemicals rather than vitamins and minerals. Onions are reputed to block the formation of cancer cells, reduce tumors, lower cholesterol, thin blood and dissolve clots, and prevent gastric ulcers and cataracts.
I’ve grown onions from seed and from sets, which are small seed onions, comparable to a garlic clove, that can be ordered from Johnny’s or other nurseries. If planting from seed, plant as soon as the weather changes and summer first begins to cool, late August. Sets can be planted in early fall for harvest next season. Or sets can be planted in the spring and onions harvested as immature, green or garden onions through the growing season.
Harvest mature onions in the spring or summer depending on the variety and the size of the bulb. I waited until the flowers finished and the stalks began to collapse. Since not all onion varieties have flowers, you can also dig along side one of the onions to test the firm weightiness of the bulb. The skin will have a glossy, consistent sheen and be tightly closed around the green stalk. No green or black spots. Newly picked onions smell sweet and do not cause tears. (The older the onion the stronger the sulphurous compounds that reduce a cook to tears.) Storage onions can keep in a cool, dry place for several months. Moisture, from stored potatoes, for example, will cause onions and garlic to sprout and spoil more quickly. Well-ventilated storage will preserve from molds.
This summer, I harvested sweet onions I planted last year. By early summer, the stalks were huge with the most spectacular flowers. But most impressive is their good tasting bulbs! Wow. These onions were so deliciously sweet because winter had intensified their sugars into a marvelous caramelized taste. An advantage to patience. I carefully dug up the onions so they wouldn’t bruise. Then, we stripped off the thin papers, trimmed and cleaned them. These are not storage onions so I’m being certain to use them up now. A friend recommended we fry onion rings. So we sliced them about 1/4 inch thick, double-dipped them in egg batter and seasoned flour, and fried them in about 3 inches of canola oil. Bliss.
Which teaches a good lesson: onions, most often the savory ingredient in recipes featuring some other food, are great vegetables by themselves. Any onion, grilled or sauteed, warm or cold, can be served as a side dish with meat or tossed in a salad. To grill onions, peel and slice into thin slices. Brush with olive oil and cook on the grill for 2-3 minutes per side until soft and tender. Onions can also be roasted, preferably unpeeled: oil whole, place in a pan and bake at 350 degrees until soft. Roasting caremelizes the sugars in onions and makes a creamy, sweet pulp inside the skins. Scoop it out and serve with some minced herbs, such as oregano, tarragon or sage. To saute onions, finely slice 8-10 onions and cook over low-medium heat in olive oil for 90 minutes until the sugar turns the onions a deep brown, caramelizing the flavors. Caramelized onions are the base for truly great French onion soup.