The many layers of onions

They’re the backbone of any soup or stew or casserole. They add a lot of flavor to any salad. They make you cry, but you cannot cook a pot roast without onions that will make you happy. Onions are probably the vegetable that we take for granted. It is always there at the supermarket. Price doesn’t vary a whole lot from month to month unless you are looking for special varieties, like Vidalia, Walla Walla or Bermuda onions. And yes, onions are more than just onions. It was interesting to learn that the U.S. is actually fourth in the world for onion production. We produce about 3 million tons. China tips the scales at 20 million tons a year.

The Vidalia and Walla Walla onions, the same variety but one is grown in Washington state and the other in Georgia, are large and sweet. As a matter of fact, they are delicious raw. Just bite into them. Alas, Bermuda onions are no more. Early in the last century they grew so many of them there that people called Bermuda “the onion patch.” But with a small building lot going for a quarter of a million dollars, I guess there is no profit in onions.

Even before considering leeks and shallots, there are dozens of main kinds of onions. And, if you want to get technical about it, 500 or 600 sub-varieties. Believe it or not, it is important to use the right type for any cooking task. Boiling onions, small and thin-skinned, are fine for stews and braising. But they just won’t stand up for the long time it takes to cook a roast. Of course, what would we do without the cocktail onion, those tiny, sweet onions that come in a jar pickled with vinegar. Cippolini are those flat, flying saucer-looking onions; they’re are about an inch and a half across, and are very important in Italian cooking.

The most common onion, the one that we buy throughout the year in those red onion bags at the supermarket, is the yellow onion. It has a brown skin and a white flesh and a pungent flavor. It is so versatile that it is the one we use in most of our cooking and salads. Interestingly, many of these onions are grown just a few miles from here, in the muck lands of Seneca and Wayne counties. It is a major production area of ordinary onions. Lastly, we have the white onion, with white flesh and a white skin, and it is very prominent in Mexican cooking and wonderful in French onion soup.

Did you know that that you can make a strong onion milder if you soak the slices in milk or pour boiling water over them and rinse after a few minutes? I was amazed to learn that when a person eats at least half a raw onion each day, their HDL, the good cholesterol, goes up by 30%. Onions increase circulation, lower blood pressure and prevent clotting. (Of course, before long your friends may stand a yard away to talk to you.)

Some folks cut their onions under water to prevent tearing up. I simply place mine on a cutting board and turn the stove vent on, and the vapors fly away from me. Remember, that papery skin prevents the onion from drying out. So if you are using only a part of an onion, cut it before you peel and then store the remainder in the refrigerator in an air-tight sandwich bag.

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