Not Only Is This Allium Delicious and Abundant, It Also Offers Some Important Health Benefits
By: Karen Keb
IN MY KITCHEN onions play a role— sometimes minor, sometimes as the star of the show—in just about every supper cooked year round. To have a larder stocked with onions is a cook’s dream, for one can always concoct a great-tasting dish if onions are on hand. If you’re out, unfortunately there is no substitute—except anything else in the allium family (leeks, shallots, or garlic). Onions are my go-to pizza topping, a key sauteeing ingredient, and a base for homemade soup. The versatility of an onion is unbeatable.
Either loved or loathed, an onion’s pungency is exactly what has made them so popular throughout history. Considered a “poor man’s spice,” the inexpensive onion has been used lavishly by peasants to liven up their dishes. Onions were a key ingredient in the cuisines of many European countries during the Middle Ages, and it was Christopher Columbus who brought onions to the West Indies; their cultivation spread from there throughout the Western Hemisphere.
The sulfur-containing compounds in onions are responsible for all those tears; however, they’re also responsible for health-promoting effects. Onions are a major source of polyphenols (antioxidants that remove free radicals from the body), and also of flavonoids (an important subdivision of polyphenols). Onions are also a good source of vitamin C, chromium, and heart-healthy dietary fiber and vitamin B6. Studies have shown onions can lower risks for heart disease and cancer, and can increase bone density when consumed daily.
GROWING & KEEPING ONIONS
Onions (Allium cepa) are a somewhat confusing lot for gardeners. There are so many different kinds: There are the pungent, bulbous storage onions; the tiny, round, pearl or “pickling” onions; the large, sweet Spanish or Bermuda onions; and bunching onions, grown for green onions or scallions.
There are also a number of ways to grow onions: from seed, from seedlings, or from sets. Growing from seed requires a long growing season and may not be possible in northern gardens unless the seeds are started indoors very early and transplanted as seedlings. Purchasing seedlings or onions sets (immature bulbs that have been harvested and dried) from a nursery is also an option, but you won’t find any interesting varieties when you go that route. Seeds produce the best-quality onions.
All onions are somewhat easy to grow. They don’t require much space; they aren’t plagued by many diseases or pests; and they require cool weather to grow the tops and warm weather to ripen the bulbs. However, they do like a sandy, fertile loam soil, well watered with good drainage—this may prove to be a gardener’s biggest challenge. Don’t skimp when it comes to soil preparation before planting onions.
Once the tops have fallen over, it’s time to harvest your onions. Pull them up—don’t cut off the tops—and let them dry right there on the ground, if warm weather and no threat of rain is in the forecast. If the weather isn’t favorable, bring them inside and set somewhere with good air circulation. I like to fan them out on a wire screen and allow them to cure in my mudroom. Once the neck of the onion is no longer green and the tops have shriveled, snip off the tops about 1 inch above the bulb.
Onions should be stored in a well-ventilated space at room temperature, away from heat and bright light—perhaps a dark pantry closet. For longest storage life, put them in a wire hanging basket, or colander with a raised base so that air can circulate underneath.
• Wethersfield Large Red: This onion is the celebrated icon and logo of Wethersfield, Conn., home of Comstock, Ferre & Co. (Comstock Seeds), and traces its development back to the 1700s (see an old catalog shot of the Wethersfield onion on page 54). It grows to deep red, fine-grained, and pleasantly flavored—of renowned quality.
• Australian Brown: When first offered in 1897 by Burpee, it was said to be “Crisp, solid, and of sweet, mild flavor. Bulbs have been kept in fine condition for a year after they were harvested.” Originated in Australia, it’s a yellowish brown onion that easily reaches 1 pound.
• Southport White Globe: With pure white skin and mild flavor, this large globe-shaped bulb was said to be “the best white onion for market” by seedsman Thomas Griswold. Another Connecticut heirloom, the Southport White Globe was originally grown along the state’s Mill River, where they were exported by the millions; this agricultural epicenter was known as the “Onion Capital.”
• Ailsa Craig: This large yellow Spanish-type onion was named after the most conspicuous landmark in the channel between Ireland and Scotland—the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig, a small, round land mass that resembles a curling stone. Ailsa Craig was introduced to the United States in 1887 by David Murray, the gardener for the Marquess of Ailsa. Nearly a perfectly round onion, it grows very large—3 pounds or more, with 2 pounds being average— and its sweet flesh is mild and tasty.
Caramelized Onion Tart
This is a classic quiche, but the sweetness of the brown-sugar caramelized onions renders it dessert-like. Paired with the nutty, full-flavored Gruyere, it makes for a truly satisfying flavor experience. Serve this as an appetizer, cut into small squares or wedges, or full slices with a salad and bread as a meal. Serves 6.
11/3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
6 T. butter, cold and cubed
1 egg yolk
4 to 6 T. ice water
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1¼ pounds heirloom onions, sliced thinly
2 tsp. brown sugar
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
2/3 cup cream or half & half
Salt and pepper
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour and butter. Pulse to combine, about 10 seconds. Add the egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of ice water and process. One tablespoon at a time, add more water through the feeding tube until the dough
roughly sticks together. Dump it out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press together to form a ball. Flatten to a disk and wrap up. Place the dough in the refrigerator for one hour.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook slowly, stirring constantly, until they begin to soften. Add the brown sugar and nutmeg, and continue to cook for 35 to 45 minutes, until the
onions are brown and caramelized. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough to fit a 10- inch tart pan or regular (not deep-dish) pie pan. Flip the dough over every so often as you roll out to prevent it from sticking. Press it into the tart pan. Place the tart shell on a baking sheet; cover with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes; remove parchment and beans; bake another 10 minutes; remove from oven to cool slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 400°F.
Beat the eggs with the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the grated cheese. Place the baked tart shell on a baking tray and spoon in the caramelized onions. Pour in the egg mixture. Protect the crust edges with an aluminum pie ring, or aluminum foil.
Bake for 35 minutes until puffed and golden brown. Cool slightly before serving.
Heirloom Onion & Garlic Spread
This spread can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days. Makes 2 cups
3 large garlic bulbs
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 heirloom red onions, chopped
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. prepared horseradish
2 T. fresh thyme leaves or 1 T. dried thyme
¼ teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Peel off the outer skin of each garlic bulb and slice off the top third of each. Place the bulbs, cut side up, on a square of aluminum foil. Drizzle with ¼ cup olive oil, and seal the foil loosely. Place the garlic package on a baking tray and roast for 35 to 45 minutes.
In a large skillet over medium-low heat, heat the remaining ¼ cup olive oil and saute the chopped onions until softened, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add the vinegar and horseradish and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Remove the garlic from the oven and open the foil. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Reserving the oil from the packet, squeeze out each garlic clove into the bowl of a food processor. Add the onions with cooking liquid, thyme, salt, and pepper to taste. Process until smooth, adding a bit of reserved garlic oil through the feeding tube.
HG Editor Karen Keb operates Prairie Turnip Farm in Osage County, Kansas, with her husband, Oscar H. Will III. Email her at karen (at) heirloomgardener.com