The Allium family is not a family any of us necessarily grew up next to, but rather, it’s something we all keep in our kitchens. Onions and Garlic are part of the allium family (their botanical name) and they have a surprisingly significant nutritional worth that I really never thought about, but always have in my kitchen. These kitchen staples: onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions and chives, do not get much attention, but they are all an exceptionally rich source of daily sulfide, a phytochemical that may reduce the risk of stomach and colon cancer. They provide moderate amounts of fiber, potassium and vitamins B and C. The other good news about this family is that they offer a low calorie way to bring depth to dishes. Roasted, baked, grilled or caramelized, and they all take on nutty overtones. They enhance the flavor of whatever you’re making or by themselves. Slices of raw onion lose their bitter edge, but not flavor, when soaked in water so you can use them in sandwiches or when making vinaigrette.
The white, yellow and red onions are probably the most daily used onions. I know at work, we go through 3 or 4 fifty-pound bags of both yellow and red onions per week. The fact is it really is hard to make a savory dish without an onion or garlic. I’ve been told white onions are sweeter than yellow onions, but I rarely use white onions. I find them too strong and I prefer the flavor of the yellow onion. Spanish onions are very large type-yellow onions and have the similar flavor to their smaller cousin. Red onions, or as they are also called, Bermuda onions (don’t ask me why they don’t come from Bermuda), are sweeter and milder and I would use them when a recipe is calling for a raw onion. I know many people who would not eat a cheeseburger without a slice of red onion to go with it. The main concern with onions is slicing; I am a contact lens wearer so I normally do not have any issues with tears, you just need to be sure your knife is sharp. Nothing is worse than slicing an onion with a dull knife. I have also read if you chill the onion before you slice it that will lessen the volatility of the substance, which can cause the eyes to tear up. Also, remember to keep your onions in dry storage, out of light and to NOT store you potatoes with your onions. The two combined shorten the life of both.
Shallots are my “go to” a lot of times when cooking. They are not as overbearing as a regular onion and they are almost a little sweet. Unfortunately, the sweeter the onion, the less beneficial they are. The stronger onions are the ones that give us the most health benefit by helping with blood clotting and lowering your heart rate. Shallots are perennials and normally they have more than one bulb. They are a big flavor element in a beef stew combined with red wine or you can use them in pan sauces, which are going to add flavor to whatever you’re reducing.
Leeks are the best, in my opinion; they are always on my shopping list for the holidays. Adding leeks to your stuffing is a GREAT way to add flavor. Cleaning the leaks is very important since they are grown with soil piled around them, so grit and dirt can accumulate between the layers. To clean leeks you need to trim the root, cut the green top. Slit the leek lengthwise without cutting all the way through, open it like a book and hold it under cold running water or just fill a bowl with water and let it soak for a few minutes to make sure all the dirt and sediments comes loose from the center of the leek. This is a great time of year to make the classic vichyssoise; nothing is better than a nice cold soup with a green salad on a hot summer night.
This family would not be complete without a mother, and in my opinion that is garlic. Garlic farmers cultivate two kinds: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck grows in northern regions with harsh winters. The cloves have a brownish skin with varying amounts of purple. The skins are thick and easy to peel. They grow until the ground freezes and then rest until the mild weather returns. If you like strong garlic the Spanish Roja is for you—it contains high amounts of allicin. This is the compound believed to be an immune system booster. Softneck garlic grows year round and in climates where the winters are mild. Elephant garlic isn’t really a garlic at all, but part of the leek family; it’s best roasted and makes a great soup. Garlic also needs to be stored in a cool dry place; a ventilated ceramic container or garlic keeper is perfect. Never store it in a plastic bag or the fridge.
Last, but not least is the baby of the family, which would be your chives, green onions or spring onions. Chives add a discreet onion flavor without being overpowering. They would be a perfect complement to the aforementioned vichyssoise, cut on the bias as a garnish or in a homemade summer salad dressing. Adding a grilled green onion or spring onion to your summer BBQ would also add great flavor to whatever you’re grilling.
So, have a great summer and just don’t forget to bring the Allium’s to your home for dinner.
K. Marie Paulk