My apologies to The Wizard of Oz for absconding with Dorothy’s list of animals to be feared on her journey down the yellow brick road. The cadence created by uttering, “lions, tigers and bears, oh my!” serves my purpose well and is easily populated with our topic today. And, if you’re reading this, it worked!
In a way, I’m “stepping on my own lines,” as I have the privilege of being one of the presenters this coming Saturday at the Master Gardener Spring Expo. My session, at 10 a.m., is on, you guessed it: onions, scallions and chives. While there will be some overlap with this article, Saturday will focus more on the cultivation of onions and how to become an “onion ninja” right here in the Tooele area. Info on the Expo can be found both in the Bulletin Board section of this paper, as well as an advertisement for the event. Be sure to be a part. For $5, you can get a lot of info, and some great social interaction to boot.
Onions, and related plants, are found in a wide variety of dishes, both cooked and fresh. It’s not an overstatement to say that if onion-type plants did not exist, our collective culinary experience would be much different — and not for the better!
Like many vegetables we enjoy, onions did not originate in the Americas. According to the National Onion Association, the exact location and date onions came into being is unknown. Those that study such things (archaeologists, botanists, and food historians) seem to have landed in two camps — those that believe onions originated in central Asia, and those that believe Iran or western Pakistan was the genesis.
Wherever they came from, they sure do have a following! They are found across the globe in all sorts of cuisines. In fact, they are one of the top 10 vegetable crops in the world! They are prepared in a variety of ways, including whole, sliced, diced, puréed, chipped and left in wedges. They can be baked, fried, sautéed, roasted, grilled, charred, steamed and simmered in a stew or soup. Heck, they can even be dehydrated and used later in a dish with sufficient moisture to reconstitute them.
Depending on the variety, the tops can be used as well to add both flavor and color. One of my favorite childhood memories was a bed of bunching onions we had along our front walkway. My mom called them “multipliers,” and they came back year after year. Those tasty gems ended up in a lot of different dishes, but the one that stands out to me was chopped up and served as a topping on tacos.
Onions are a member of the Allium genus. Alliums also claim a number of ornamental flowers to their clan. While onions may be the best-known edible allium, it’s far from being the only one. Garlic is also a family member, with the word Allium actually being derived from the Greek word for garlic. Shallots, leeks, and chives are also members of the allium family.
With everything alliums have going in their favor, and onions in particular, what’s not to love? Well, there are a couple of things. First, depending on the type of onion, they can be quite pungent. Second, onions don’t settle well with everyone’s digestion. Even so, their appeal is widespread.
Storage onions, characterized by their thicker skin and lower water content, tend to be much more pungent. Their strong scent and ability to bring on a flood of tears in all but the most stalwart of us, are legendary. However, it’s these characteristics that make them store so well. The sulfur-based compounds and lower moisture levels resist rot better than sweet onions. The neck of storage onions tends to dry out better and seal off the entrance to the interior of the onion. When maintaining them at the proper temperature, light and moisture level, storage onions can store and remain available for our kitchen supply until more are on the way!
Sweet onion varieties are not as pungent as their storage-type kin. Their mildness comes from their low sulfur and higher water. Common sweet onions include Candy, Utah Yellow Sweet Spanish, Walla Walla and Vidalia. Even though they are sweeter, they don’t contain significantly more carbs than storage onions.
A sweet onion is easy to spot because of their thin skin that distinguishes them from storage types. Unlike yellow, white and red storage onions, which can be stored at room temperature, sweet onions are best kept in your refrigerator.
Did you know that apples and sweet onions can contain almost the same sugar content? Sugar in an onion is more difficult for our palate to detect because it’s masked with the sulfur compounds that give onions both their scent and flavor. But, that doesn’t mean the sugar in a sweet onion isn’t there. Proof of this is when the onion is slow-cooked, and it caramelizes. Caramel is scorched sugar (you confectionary cooks out there know that) and there it is, plain as day, letting you know sugar is present. Heating also reduces the strength of the scent and taste of the sulfur compounds, bringing the taste of the sugar to the front. For those of you that like sliced grilled onions on top of your steak, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Let’s turn our attention, for just a bit, to chives. Chives look like tall tufts of grass. They are a hardy perennial, and are in fact closely related to grass. They reproduce both by division and seeding. We have a large bed of garlic chives, and this time of year, we clip them with scissors to use straight from the garden. They are excellent to top a baked potato (I like a bit of sour cream, butter, and salt and pepper), or for use in soups, stews, or even in a batch of home fries. They can be a bit invasive, so from time to time, we dig the fringes out to reign them in.
That brings us to scallions. Many people think that scallions are a type of onion in their own right, but it’s likely they are simply the immature plants of common bulbing onions, harvested before the bulb is fully formed. They also can come from varieties that will not form bulbs, like the onions I mentioned earlier that was part of my childhood. Scallions may also be called green onions, or salad onions. The green tops and the white root of scallions are both eaten.
Lastly, scallions are long, with the diameter of the white stem end being about the same as the rest of the onion. Their flavor is not as intense as regular onions.
There’s one other type of onion that is worth mentioning — spring onions. Again, this is not so much a variety of onion, as when it is planted. To create a crop of spring onions, the seed must be sown in the fall. The plants start growing actively in late winter or early spring, and are harvested as immature onions, in late spring — hence their name. Keep in mind that both flavor, scent, and “bite” will be quite a bit stronger in spring onions than scallions, so if you are going to make a recipe substitution, you’ll need to scale back on the quantity.
Onions (and their kin) are a wonderful addition to the Tooele area garden. They do quite well here, and don’t need to be contained to just your vegetable garden. They look nice in ornamental beds as well.
I hope I’ve further piqued your interest in taking your onion cultivation skills to the next level. While not difficult to grow, there are several things to know about their soil and nutrition needs, day-length types, different between bulb and non-bulb types, and where to get seed, bulbs and starts. I’ll give you all that information on Saturday at the Garden Expo!
Registration begins at 9:30 a.m. this Saturday at the USU Extension Building, 151 N. Main, Tooele. Cost is $5, and includes materials for six workshops and one general session presentation. Your registration also enters you into a drawing for some great gardening prizes. Don’t miss out — we’ll see you there.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his web channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.