I have been keenly aware lately that almost every salad, marinade or slow cooked meat recipe I have posted has onions in it. It got me thinking about onions…I happen to love and appreciate them even though they have a bad reputation…(onion breath anyone?)…and they make people cry. Yet they are an important ingredient in every cuisine I can think of. I can’t think of any other single vegetable that is as important to the whole world. Garlic comes close, and I realize that I will have to do a garlic article so we will leave garlic for a later date.. I am focusing on onions because they are eaten cooked and raw and I have been very conscious, as I said, that they are in almost every recipe lately. Onions appear in a wide variety of types. Most supermarkets carry at least 3 types all year long in the United States and very often four or five…or maybe 6, depending on the season.
Onions are characterized, by horticulturalists, by how much sun they need to grow. There are, by that reckoning, three types of onions. They are ranked by how much sun they need: low, medium and high sun loving varieties. That means there is virtually no climate on the planet that can’t support some type of onion. I find that amazing! Around these parts we are more likely to describe an onion by the way it looks or tastes like red, yellow, white, green or sweet onions. And sometimes we describe them by where they come from like Bermuda, Vidalia or Walla Walla. However we describe them, it is important to know how they taste, what they are good for and which can be substituted for which.
The most common type of onion we find in the grocery store is a Spanish or yellow onion which come in a variety of sizes. I like to buy the loose ones because I can pick out good ones from bad ones. A good yellow onion has a tight skin, no blemishes or soft spots, is free of insects, or dark looking mold, and feels heavy for its size. there is nothing worse than cutting into an onion to find that it has a rotten section…you just can’t feel good about putting that into your food. This type of onion is very likely to make you cry when you cut it (I will discuss all of the ways to keep from crying in the Tuesday Tips) and if eaten raw will taste strong and give you onion breath which has earned them the alternate name of cooking onions which is sometimes used in recipes. I like to cook with these…they make a great onion ring or sauteed onion and I use them as an essential part of mirepoix (which is a basic trio of vegetables Carrot, Onion and Celery) used in a lot of classical savory dishes in Continental cuisine. I tend to buy large onions because they seem to have matured better. The flesh of small yellow onions is often green and I don’t like to peel more onions. I find it easier to peel a large onion and save the remaining half wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator than to peel more little ones. Don’t worry the onion smell does not penetrate the plastic and make the fridge smell like onions.
White onions are often seen right next to yellow onions in the supermarket and people always ask me, “what is the difference between them?”, and, “are they interchangeable?”. The short answer is they are somewhat interchangeable but not identical. White onions have a somewhat milder flavor which makes them easier to eat raw and they taste great cooked too. They are usually a little more expensive than their yellow cousins, but I love them in pico de gallo. If you have not tried a white onion for whatever reason, try it as soon as you can (now that you know it is safe). They are also a great onion for your potato salad (or any salad this summer, for that matter.)
We are all familiar with green onions or scallions (or welsh onions, spring onion or rareripes?); aren’t we? I usually prefer these eaten raw. They have a sweet mild flavor which is often lost during cooking. Cooked too long, they take on a slimy lifeless character and don’t seem appetizing that way. I do like to add them to a clear broth at the last minute or give them a very quick grilling over a hot fire and serve them well seasoned with salt and pepper. They are an essential ingredient in Asian cookery, where again, I find adding them at the end is best. Otherwise, you may have noticed that I use them a lot in salads sliced very thinly either perpendicular or cut “on the bias”.
Red onions are another onion I prefer to eat raw. They just seem to lose their beautiful, vibrant color when cooked. They tend to be sweet and mild, a perfect sandwich onion. I have seen red onions cooked with sugar and vinegar to make an onion “marmalade” which is excellent and definitely worth trying as a nice accompaniment to meat or fish. Red onions also add a great crispness and wonderful color to salads. One of my all time favorite ways to eat red onions is in the Peruvian style, marinated in lime juice with salt and pepper as the traditional accompaniment to ceviche.
Vidalia and Walla Walla fall into the category of sweet onions. People in Vidalia, Georgia brag that theirs are the best in the world and it would be hard to argue. Sweet onions are almost always eaten raw because of their very sweet and mild flavor. They look like large, flat, flying saucer shaped onions. There is a small sweet onion called a cipollini which is also available very often and very often cooked, go figure… Sweet onions do caramelize well, but they will loose most of their other flavors. They go great in salads featuring them as a main ingredient rather than just an accompaniment, so don’t be afraid to try these…they are well worth the price.
My favorite onion to cook with is the shallot. Shallots are the small, brown skinned onion with light red flesh. Shallots look almost like large cloves of garlic. Their flavor reminds me of a cross between onions and garlic. They are quite strong when eaten raw, but turn subtle and sweet when cooked properly. Every Thanksgiving table that I can remember had some type of roasted or confit of shallots. Cooked slowly in good olive oil or butter with some herbs and a fortified wine until the liquid is reduced to a syrup yields an unbelievable explosion of sweet and savory flavors on your pallet. You can count on at least a couple of recipes like this when the weather turns colder in October, that will give you something to look forward to.
That is a quick run through several of the varieties often seen in the local grocery stores. Onions are quite nutritious and have been associated with antioxidant and antimicrobial effects for a long time. Recently they have been found to contain some micro-nutrients that may prove beneficial to one’s health. The main point for me is they taste great and are a must have in every kitchen, every day…So don’t forget the onions. By the way: the strong aroma and crying is a product of the release of sulfur compounds which are found mainly in the roots and I will be giving suggestions on how to avoid the tears on Tuesday Tips…See you tomorrow.