Dietribes: Peeling the Onion

onion4.jpg /

The Onion. No, not that Onion. Rather, the delectable vegetable that adds a great deal of flavor to your meal and aroma to your kitchen. At the workhouse, Oliver Twist was lucky to get "Three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Saturdays." I can't imagine eating an onion plain, but perhaps some of you have. For now, shake or stir your Gibson cocktail (garnished with an onion, of course), and learn more about this fantastic foodstuff.

"¢ According to the Cambridge World History of Food, "The onion may have originated in Persia (Iran) and Beluchistan (eastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan), but it is also possible that onions were indigenous from Palestine to India [...] the consumption of onions is depicted in the decoration of Egyptian tombs dating from the Early Dynasty Period, c. 2925"“c. 2575 B.C. Onions were used as religious offerings, put on altars and, as is known from mummified remains,were employed in preparing the dead for burial (placed about the thorax and eyes, flattened against the ears, and placed along the legs and feet and near the pelves). The Greek historian Herodotus reported that onions, along with radishes and garlic, were a part of the staple diet of the laborers who built the Great Pyramid at Giza (2700"“2200 B.C.)"

"¢ Not merely a tasty addition to many dishes, onions are also thought to relieve hypertension, hyperlipemia and coronary artery disease. Also, onions contain antioxidative activity, which can be increased by microwave heating or boiling.

"¢ Onions vary in size, shape, color and pungency. For instance, warmer climates produce onions with a milder, sweeter flavor than do other climates. From the Encyclopedia Britannica, a quick field guide to onion varieties:

"“ Globe-shaped onions may be white, yellow, or red. They have strong flavor and are used chiefly for soups, stews, and other prepared dishes and for frying. "“ Bermuda onions are large and flat, with white or yellow color and fairly mild taste. They are often cooked and may be stuffed, roasted, or French-fried. They are also sliced and used raw in salads and sandwiches. "“ Spanish onions are large, sweet, and juicy, with color ranging from yellow to red. Their flavor is mild, and they are used raw and sliced for salads and sandwiches and as a garnish. "“ Italian onions are flat, with red color and mild flavor. They are used raw for salads and sandwiches, and their red outer rings make an attractive garnish. "“ Pearl onions are not a specific variety but are small, round, white onions harvested when 25 mm (1 inch) or less in diameter. They are usually pickled and used as a garnish and in cocktails. Small white onions that are picked when between 25 and 38 mm in diameter are used to flavor foods having fairly delicate taste, such as omelets and other egg dishes, sauces, and peas. They are also served boiled or baked. "“ Green onions, also called scallions and spring onions, are young onions harvested when their tops are green and the underdeveloped bulbs are 13 mm or less in diameter. Their flavor is mild, and the entire onion, including top, stem, and bulb, is used raw in salads and sauces, as a garnish, and also as a seasoning for prepared dishes.

"¢ Of course, one of the most popular varieties of onion is the Vidalia because of its mild flavor. The Vidalia often fetches as much as three times the price of ordinary onions. Grown in Georgia, it will not cause "your nose to run, your heart to burn, or your sweetheart to gag" (at least according to Jimmy Carter's former press secretary). Tests have shown that the sugar content in the Vidalia is highest of all; it seems to have something to do with the mild climate and the paucity of sulfur in the sandy soil.

"¢ Because of its popularity, the Vidalia has had to contend with its share of impostors. In 1986, a case went to the Georgia Supreme Court against onions grown in Texas and California that called themselves "Vidalia Sweet Onions." After the case was settled, the Georgia legislature passed a law that stated only onions grown in specific counties of Georgia could be labeled as Vidalia.

"¢ If onions are so wonderful, why do they make you cry? Find out by reading this article, which describes the chemical process, along with a few remedies. A friend once told me if you put a wooden spoon in your mouth it works to stave off the tears. This is as of yet untested .... has it worked for anyone else?

onion-goggles.jpg /

"¢ First Prize at the 2007 Onion and Leek Show went to Paul Rochester for an onion over 15 lbs. His secret? Playing swing tunes to the plants, something I once tried for a science-fair project, to negligible results (my violin playing did better than the plant which I talked to, though. It died).

"¢ After all this onion business, you may need a bit of parsley to get rid of that onion breath ... at least, according to the National Onion Association that is.

"¢ What are you favorite ways to use an onion? I often caramelize it and include it in everything from stir fry to pizza to a scrumptious gourmet grilled cheese sandwich (though I don't cook them for nearly as long as that site recommends).

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.