An ode to onions, from sweet to savory, raw to carmelized
"The kitchen, reasonably enough, was the scene of my first gastronomic adventure. I was on all fours. I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all. It must have marked me for life, for I have never ceased to love the hearty flavor of raw onions."
- James Beard
Some years ago when I first came across this famous quote from the "Dean of American Cooking," I remember feeling relieved. If James Beard was a raw onion eater, maybe I didn't always have to apologize when I indulged. I may have even let out a sigh - and if it was springtime, that sigh probably smelled a lot like sweet Texas onions.
No onion breath apologies were needed during visits to my grandparents' Arkansas farm when I was a kid. Everyone in my family loved raw onions, especially the sweet ones. One of my first choices for a snack was a cold leftover biscuit and a hunk of sweet onion, and maybe a radish or two. Sweet and spicy crunch, doughy softness with a slightly salty chewiness. All that and still small enough to push into my pockets before heading out for a walk in the nearby piney woods.
To this day, a piece of cold leftover roast chicken and a big thick wedge of raw sweet onion is almost everything I need for a satisfying (and easy) dinner. All that's missing is a slice of homegrown tomato (which I expect to harvest from my garden in the next week or so), a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. When sweet Texas onions are in season (usually mid-March to early or mid-June), I'm likely to be eating raw onion just about every day. If everyone would just eat more raw onion, onion breath would not be such a big deal. Especially the kind of onion breath you get from eating raw Texas 1015s, the sweetest smelling sweet onion on the planet - unless you're talking to a Georgian. Yes, Georgia's wildly popular and well-marketed Vidalia onions are indeed tasty, but did you know they were developed from a Texas sweet onion? (A&M University's "Grano 502.") In fact, according to Aggie research records, most of the sweet onion varieties in the United States and beyond can be traced to Texas seedstock. (The Walla Walla from Washington is one exception.) This is where Texas onion history gets kind of complicated, but according to published accounts of a story told in 1979 by horticulturist Ernest Mortensen to Jerry Parsons, then a Texas Agricultural Extension Service horticulturist, transplants of a first-generation Texas hybrid called Granex were planted in Georgia in 1952, and those were the very same onions that came to be known as Vidalia onions.
Regardless of how sweet or not sweet an onion is, if you relish eating it raw, I'm guessing that, like me, you were born into an onion eating family. That's my theory, anyway. I've also wondered whether raw onion eaters are more common in the South, where most of the sweet spring onion varieties are grown. But after talking to Southern food scholar and UT professor Elizabeth Engelhardt, I'm thinking that raw onion fans are everywhere and the onions they eat aren't always sweet.
For example, in the mountains of Appalachia, where Engelhardt is from, the first wild onions of spring are ramps. "(Appalachians) are very comfortable eating spicy things like onions. People eat raw ramps every spring, and they're strong. Some of the raw onion eating came from folk beliefs that the onion had medicinal properties. They saw it as a spring tonic that would strengthen the body after a long winter with no fresh fruits or vegetables."
Ramps, a type of wild leek, can be quite pungent with a smell that travels and lingers. Which would explain this popular expression shared by Engelhardt: "Everyone eats them or no one eats them. That's what people say."
And that makes sense, but given all we now know about the health benefits of eating raw onions and garlic, I'm thinking everyone should be eating raw onions, and those who won't or can't eat them should just politely look the other way.
And now that I'm thinking about it, "Do you like raw onions?" probably should be right up there with "Do you want children?" in dating rituals.
If good taste and good health aren't reason enough for an occasional case of onion breath, try pointing out that sometimes ancient folk wisdom has some merit. A number of academic research studies in the last few years (including one reported just two months ago at a university in Thailand) have found that regular consumption of raw onions and fresh onion juice can raise blood levels of testosterone and increase sperm counts in rats and mice.
Raw onion, anyone?
Former Statesman staffer Renee Studebaker writes about gardening and cooking from her garden at reneesnewblog.com. Email her at email@example.com. For more seasonal garden recipes, visit reneesnewblog.com .
Sweet onion recipes
You don't have to be able to eat sweet raw onion like an apple to appreciate its ability to jazz up a ho-hum meal. Try this easy sweet onion relish the next time your dinner needs some extra kick. Peel and chop a medium-size 1015 onion. Toss with about 1/3 cup of chopped cilantro, 1 Tbsp. finely chopped serrano pepper, 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, 1-2 Tbsp raw honey (or maple syrup), and several pinches of sea salt. Let sit for 5-10 minutes. Taste and add more honey and salt if needed. Serve on grilled shrimp tacos, roast pork or savory flan. Or serve with tortilla chips alongside a tangy-sweet margarita. (Garnish drink with a sweet onion slice and a green olive. And if you're a hardcore onionhead, add a splash of sweet onion juice to the mix.)
CARAMELIZED ONION PIE
If you're wondering why so many cooks out there are caramelizing onions then I'm betting you haven't discovered the joy of having little containers of caramelized onions in your freezer so that you can make a fast French onion soup, top a grilled steak, or whip up a platter of puff pastry appetizers. I like crustless quiches and custards, and this recipe is a variation on that theme. If you prefer, you can pour the filling into your favorite pie crust.
1 to 2 cups caramelized onions (recipe follows)
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup whole milk
Sea salt, generous pinch
1/4 cup gruyere cheese, grated and divided
Butter and all purpose flour for dusting pie pan
Butter an 8-inch pie plate and dust with flour. In a bowl, combine eggs, milk and salt. Sprinkle half the cheese on the floured pie plate. . Spoon on onions, cover with egg mixture and top with remaining cheese. Bake for about 35 minutes in a 360-degree oven, or until filling has set and edges are golden brown. Allow pie to cool for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Caramelized onions: Peel and slice thinly 2 medium yellow onions, sweet or not. Melt 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. (Cast iron or heavy stainless steel work well here.) Add onions and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often, until onions are translucent. Stir in 1 Tbsp. light brown sugar or maple syrup and about 1 tsp. of sea salt. Reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, stirring as needed to prevent onions from sticking or burning. Then stir in 1/4 cup white wine and loosen brown bits from pan. (Choose a wine with a full, rich flavor but not too sweet — I like to use Becker's Viognier.) Continue cooking on medium low heat for another 45 minutes or until liquid has evaporated and onions are evenly caramel colored. Note: If onions begin to burn or stick add a little more wine or water to deglaze pan and then continue cooking. Because of higher water content, sweet onions may take a little longer to caramelize.
— Renee Studebaker
SWEET ONION PANCAKES
I tasted a traditional Chinese scallion pancake for the first time a couple of years ago when my neighbor Der Jane Ho shared one with me. She and her kids think of them as comfort food and treats. I agree. This recipe is a riff on Der Jane's and also includes tips and techniques from cookbook author and wok master Grace Young, who recently demonstrated her version of this Chinese classic in a class at Central Market.
1 3/4 cups unbromated all purpose flour
1/4 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup boiling water (plus 1 Tbsp. more if needed)
1/2 cup 1015 onion, peeled and diced
About 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
About 1/4 cup lard, from sustainable grass fed pork, or canola oil, divided
Sift flour into a mixing bowl. Slowly add water in a steady stream while mixing with a wooden spoon. Keep adding water until ball begins to form. Ball should not be sticky. Gently pull any bits of loose flour into the ball. Cover bowl with a damp cloth and let set at room temp for 1 hour.
On a floured surface, use a floured rolling pin to roll out dough into a thin circle, about 7 inches wide. Brush top side lightly with sesame oil, sprinkle with salt and cover evenly with onions. Gently pick up one edge of dough and roll it into a log. Pinch the ends closed, and cut into 4 pieces. Place pieces in floured bowl, cover with a damp towel and place in refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
Return dough pieces to floured work space, and working with one piece at a time, gently stretch and twist three or four times as if you were wringing out a wet towel. Be careful not to let the onions poke through the dough. Place twisted dough on floured surface and starting at one end coil it into a tight, flat ring. Press down once with a floured palm, and then roll into a thin circle about 7 inches wide. Pinch together any tears in the dough and dust flour on any sticky spots. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Add 1/2 Tbsp. of lard (or canola) to a hot wok or cast iron skillet. Place pancake in pan, reduce heat to medium high, and gently press on pancake with a spatula to flatten while it cooks for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown.
Using a large pancake flipper, lift pancake, add another 1/2 Tbsp. of lard to pan and cook other side of pancake for about 2-3 minutes or until golden brown and lightly crisp. Remove pancake, place on a towel to drain, and again sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat steps with remaining pieces of dough. Cut into wedges and serve warm or room temperature. For an extra treat, try topping each wedge with a small dollop of caramelized onions.
— Renee Studebaker
If raw doesn't work for you
Caramelize a couple of onions and bake them in a pie. Or cut them in halves, drizzle with balsamic vinegar, salt and olive oil and toss them on the grill.
Behold the mighty onion
Some influential early settlers of the New World were not fond of onions. An early West Virginia law (now defunct, of course) tried to prohibit children who had wild onion breath from attending school in the spring. On the other hand, Ancient Romans were very fond of onions, wild and cultivated, and respected the vegetable's powers. Pliny the Elder, early Rome's oft quoted observer, wrote about Pompeii's love affair with onions, which were thought to improve vision, induce sleep, and heal mouth sores, dog bites and toothaches. Romans also believed that eating onions regularly would increase the libido. A belief that onions could ignite the passions of those who consumed them also surfaced in the New World. According to Aggie Horticulture Web archives, an old law once on the books in Nacogdoches prohibited young women from eating raw onions after 6 p.m. In White Horse, New Mexico, an antiquated bit of legislation prohibited married women from eating onions on the Sabbath. An exception could be made if she was eating her onion under the watchful eye of her husband, who was expected to carry a loaded musket over his left shoulder while walking 20 paces behind her.
Onion odds and ends
-- The 1015 Supersweet onion was developed in the early ‘80s at A&M University by Dr. Leonard Pike, a professor of horticulture. 1015 refers to its suggested planting date. It was nicknamed the "million-dollar baby" because of the money spent to develop it.
-- In ancient Greece, athletes rubbed themselves with raw onions before competitions because it was thought that onion juice stimulated the muscles.
-- For early Egyptians, onions were symbols of eternal life and were often buried with the dead. Archeologists discovered onion remains in the eye sockets of the mummy of King Ramses IV.
- To reduce the pungency of raw onion, soak slices in cold water for up to an hour, or in a pinch, rinse for a few minutes under cold water.
-- A favorite snack among Romanian farmers is fried pork fat, bread and raw onion.
-- The leek is prized in Welsh cuisine and is considered the national vegetable of Wales. The U.S. doesn’t have a national vegetable, but the state vegetable of Texas is the sweet onion.
-- A recent study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology found that the flavonoids of onion, in addition to having beneficial health properties, can also extend the life of food, which means they could be useful as a natural alternative to artificial additives and preservatives.
-- Although time, a good toothbrush and good digestion are thought to be the best antidotes to onion breath, some people swear by chewing parsley or orange peel. Eucalyptus-extract gum is thought help break down sulfur compounds left on the tongue, which might chase onion breath away faster.
-- Research has shown that onions provide twice the quercetin of tea, and at least three times the quercetin of apples. Quercetin is a flavonoid that is thought to guard against a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
Sweet vs. storage onions
It's a lot easier to love raw onion when it's sweet, but the sweet onions don't keep as well as storage onions because they have a higher water content. A raw storage onion, regardless of whether it's a white, yellow or purple variety, can make you sit up and take notice of just how hot and oniony an onion can be. But it keeps months longer than a sweet onion. Of course, depending on the growing conditions, just about any onion, wild or cultivated, sweet or storage, can become pungent. Onions grown in fertile soil with a steady water supply generally produce the largest and the sweetest onions. And that goes for scallions and shallots, too. Most cooks agree that yellow storage onions, grown primarily in the cooler northern states, are the easier onions to caramelize.
— Renee Studebaker