Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Incidental Onion

Onions might be one vegetable that don't garner a great deal of attention.

Most people have them in their kitchens because of the incredible flavour they add to dishes, but they seldom play a starring role or are given a whole lot of consideration.

When my Mollie was little and was learning to graze ( and I mean graze!) in the garden, she hit the alliums first. Garlic, onions and chives, any of those were fair game.  Never mind that I wasn't likely to munch on some of them as is because of the heat.  She did...without hesitation.  She even loved them so much that she called her beloved doll "Baby Onion"(pronounced "on-yon").  I'd tuck her in bed at night with Baby Onion and she reeked to high heaven of onions.  Still did in the morning too.

Most kids don't have that crazy enthusiasm for onions. Or older folks for that matter too.

 My sister won't eat them at all, which is hard to understand.

But it was not always that way for onions.  They have been around forever, and at one point in their history were nearly worshipped.

They are believed to be one of the earliest domesticated crops, but were most certainly consumed prior to domestication in the wild.  They were found in the gardens of royalty as early as 2100 BC, and were held in high esteem in Egypt because their "circle within a circle" configuration was thought to mean eternal life.  It was also believed their strong smell could bring the dead back to life.

They were considered a valued herbal treatment by Indian culture as they were deemed good for the eyes, heart and joints and early Greek Olympians used onion tonics and poultices for strength.  By the Middle Ages they were so important that they were used at times for rental payments and wedding gifts.

Well, we might not get away with THAT now.  What a world it would be if onions could pay the rent.

I'll let the reader dwell on that one.

Amazing really how this once revered vegetable has fallen from grace.  But not with everyone!  My 2010 Seed Savers Yearbook distinguishes 126 varieties- and of course there are more than that.  But most certainly when you go into the grocery store and peruse the onion department, you will likely see one variety of scallions, one red, one cooking onion type and a shallot.  Perhaps a pearl onion for good measure, and a tidy little bunch of chives.

I grew a mere 5 varieties this year, but they were really good ones.  If you want to experience some wonderful onion varieties, you simply have to grow your own from seed.  Garden centres have limited varieties of transplants and sets, but seed catalogues, my oh my!

I find when I grow onions, I really don't end up selling a whole lot of them..with one exception.  The very pretty Red Torpedo onion, pictured above is quite popular and that works for me because it is also one of my favourites.  I also like some of the big ones, like Walla Walla, and Ailsa Craig and the pretty flattened cippolinis.

I start my onion, leek and chive seeds early, usually around mid-February, placing them under my fluorescent lights indoors.  They require deep pots for seeding, so the roots can stretch.  I usually seed them in 4 inch pots that are at least 4 inches deep, and spread the seeds out about 1/4 inch apart. As they grow and the greens shoot up, they require regular trimmings, to redirect the plants energy back to the root.  These trimming make a nice zesty addition to late winter salads and sandwiches.

By April, it is usually possible to find a workable area in the garden, so out they go!  I hoe a planting row about 2 inches deep, add a nice layer of compost into the row, and plug the tender little onions in.  I firm the soil around them, water them in, and keep a look out for weeds.  My experience is that onions are heavy feeders, like to be well watered and don't like weed competition.  If possible, it's a good idea to mulch them with straw, when they have grow a little bit.  They don't mind being crowded in the rows, so you can plant them pretty close together.

One particularly interesting onion is the Egyptian Walking onion.  That is the other picture at the top of my blog. This is a perennial onion, and it reproduces by plunking it's little topsets on the ground, which then root themselves, beginning the cycle all over again. In this way, it "walks" across your garden. These onions are lovely and pungent, and you need never be without onions as long as they are around.

For seed saving purposes, most other onions are biennials- that is, they develop their seed in the second year of growth.  To collect seed they need to be overwintered in the garden( with a heavy layer of mulch), or in cold storage, then replanted in the spring.

Most information from seed companies indicates that onion seed viability is short lived, but I have had onion seed last many years.  Correct storage must be the key-dry and cool.

Want to try a yummy and different dish?  This one is from Canadian Living, and is most certainly worth the effort!

Caramelized Onion Lasagna

This twist on lasagna is great for a Saturday night get-together. Serve with salad and a special loaf of bread.
This recipe makes 10 servings



In skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tbsp (25 mL)
of the butter; reduce heat to medium-low and cook onions, stirring occasionally, for 35 to 45 minutes or until soft and golden. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in heavy saucepan, melt remaining butter over medium heat. Stir in flour; cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, stirring for 10 to 15 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat; stir in 1/4 cup (50 mL) of the cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Meanwhile, in large pot of boiling salted water, cook noodles for 8 to 10 minutes or until almost tender. Reserving cooking liquid, remove from pot; rinse in cold water. Arrange in single layer on clean damp tea towel.
Squash Filling: In food processor, pulse ricotta with squash puree until very smooth. Transfer to large bowl; stir in egg, egg yolk, bread crumbs, cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg until well blended. Set aside.
Return reserved cooking liquid to boil. Add broccoli and cook for about 2 minutes or until almost tender. Drain. Refresh under cold water; drain again.
Set aside 1 cup (250 mL) of the cheese sauce. Arrange 3 noodles in single layer in greased 13- x 9-inch (3 L) baking dish. Spread with half each of the squash filling, broccoli, onions and remaining cheese sauce. Repeat layers. Top with remaining noodles and reserved cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake in 375°F (190°C) oven for about 40 minutes or until light golden and bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.


Tiffany said...

"They were found in the gardens of royalty as early as 2100 BC, and were held in high esteem in Egypt because their "circle within a circle" configuration was thought to mean eternal life"

I will never look at an onion the same way when I'm chopping it. I love that!

Also love that Mollie had a doll named Baby Onion and smelled like onions. Makes me love that kid all the more.

Linda said...

The history of what we eat is really interesting and honestly onions have one of the most interesting stories of all. Ahh, yes and Baby Onion-such good memories!
Thanks for reading.

Kris Mo said...

Great post, Linda! I'm adding your recommended varieties to my grow list for 2011... thanks for the helpful tips!