2018-05-16 / Taste

All about alliums

From onions on down, this family packs flavor

Counter-clockwise from center top: leek, green onion, garlic, shallot, red onion, white onion, Vidalia onion, yellow onion, blossoming chive. 
JENNY McQUEEN Counter-clockwise from center top: leek, green onion, garlic, shallot, red onion, white onion, Vidalia onion, yellow onion, blossoming chive. JENNY McQUEEN If you’ve visited a local farmers market recently, you’ve seen the folding tables heaped high with all the usual spring yields: collards and curly kale, tender strawberries and plump asparagus. Then there are the bunches of spring onions – pearly, palm-sized bulbs extending into crisp green stalks, alluring and loaded with possibility. But what makes an onion a “spring” onion, and how should you use one?

For cooks who have only begun to explore the world of alliums – a family of vegetables that includes onions, shallots, garlic, leeks and chives – navigating all the options can be daunting. But alliums are your most versatile kitchen ingredient, forming the flavor backbone of most savory dishes. Getting acquainted with a broad sampling and their best uses can instantly elevate your cooking.

The allium family boasts thousands of members, so I want to focus on a few of the most commonly available in Virginia. Let’s start with the big ones you’ll find in any grocery store bin.

After tomato, red onions are a lettuce’s best friend: they have a bright, crisp flavor and are not overwhelming when eaten raw – this makes them an excellent topper for salads and sandwiches. Red onions do not saute well; they are not very sweet and the color fades to a disappointing rust. They do, however, turn a glorious pink when soaked in distilled white vinegar, providing a zippy tang to sandwiches, salads and charcuterie boards.

White onions have a mild flavor, making them another contender for raw service. They won’t add as much depth of flavor as their red cousin, but they will lend a bit of pizzazz to whatever you are making without overpowering it. White onions are always my go-to for salsa and guacamole.

Yellow onions are by far the most common. While a bit too pungent to be eaten raw, they are divine when sauteed. Caramelize yellow onions over low heat without too much butter or oil – aim for one tablespoon per onion – and don’t add salt until they are just about done. Adding it too early can result in an over-concentration of salt, as the onion volume reduces by about half when caramelized.

Hailing from Vidalia, Georgia, sweet Vidalia onions are, not surprisingly, the sweetest of them all. Vidalias are characterized by their squat nature, looking like a light-yellow onion that has been smushed. Fantastic on the grill or in a caramelized onion dish, they can also hold their own when eaten raw. They are also the best onion for French onion soup.

An often-overlooked member of the onion family is the shallot. They look like small reddish onions and usually have a couple of bulbs inside a single papery skin, which should be removed before eating. Shallots have a gentle yet complex flavor, offering deep garlic notes in addition to their oniony-ness. They are exquisite in salads and dressings, mild enough to consume raw but flavorful enough to give nuance to creamy pasta sauces and soups. When roasted or sauteed, shallots almost melt, imbuing every bite with flavor.

With the familiar onion out of the way, let’s talk about my favorite allium – leeks! Leeks have a thick stalk and fat, fibrous leaves. When preparing leeks, bypass the dark green leaves, which are difficult to digest. The crisp stalk is what you’re after. Leeks consist of dozens of layers, so washing them to remove dirt before use is an absolute must. Slice leeks thinly and use anywhere you would use garlic or onion. They are mild enough to eat raw yet offer a wonderful complexity when caramelized, giving your dish more depth than traditional garlic or onion.

Let’s take a minute to talk about the differences between spring onions, green onions, scallions and chives. Spring onions are a varietal of young onion, with an edible bulb and stalk. Delicate with a short shelf life, it’s best to purchase these in small quantities when you’re ready to use them. They’re mild but stronger than green onions, making them a great candidate for stir-fries.

Green onions and scallions are actually the same thing. The stalk resembles a spring onion, but in lieu of a bulb, there’s just a nub with roots. For raw consumption they are preferable to the spicier spring onion. Eat everything but the dark, bitter ends of the stalk. While green onions and chives are similar, the dainty chive offers some additional culinary opportunities. Not particularly tasty when cooked, fresh chives are excellent in dressings and dips and mild enough to sprinkle over any dish. Chives also have a beautiful, edible blossom. The purple flower has a mild garlic flavor and is stunning when served whole as a garnish. You can mix the petals into butter and serve with bread to wow your dinner guests.

The list of alliums goes on, with flavors ranging from sweet to spicy to garlicky – so don’t hesitate to experiment. Ramps – a wild onion also referred to as wild leeks – are only available for about three weeks out of the year and are sought after by chefs for their complex flavor and scarcity. Fresh garlic and green garlic are frequently sold at farmers markets and offer a far milder flavor than the dried bulbs sold in grocery stores.

If you’re interested in learning the science behind alliums and how so much spice, sugar and acid is wrapped up in one plant, chemist Eric Block wrote an entire book on their chemical makeup: “Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science.” It’s fascinating, and you’ll discover there’s more to know about garlic than you ever thought possible. ¦

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