The onion family contributes an impressive range of flavourings which are used, in one from or another, in most of the world’s savoury dishes. While some cooks regard onion as a lowly ingredient and pay little attention to its provenance, type and storage, others who know better treat it with due respect. French chefs use different onions for their specialties.
Onions rank as the sixth largest vegetable crop in the world and was worshipped by Egyptians of antiquity because of its unique, spherical shape and concentric rings. Egyptian artists regarded onion as one of the most important foods and attributed it powers of eternity. On Egyptian reliefs and wall paintings, onions are depicted in gold, and artists awarded it an exalted status. Researchers traced the origins of onions to Asia and domesticated uses to 3500 B C. Undoubtedly wild onions grew much earlier and were used as flavouring by imaginative cooks.
Onions are low in calories and nutrients except in vitamin A in scallions (green onions). Photochemicals in onions promote health, and quercetin acts as an antioxidant.
There are three types of onions; spring, storage and pearl.
* Spring onions are grown from fall to spring, and have a mild taste. They are shipped immediately after harvest.
* Storage onions are firm, dry and possess a pungent taste. After harvest, they are dried and then shipped.
* Spanish onions are large and mild, often used sliced in hamburger buns for extra flavour and texture.
* Red onions have a similar sweet flavour to that of Spanish onions, and occasionally chefs prepare it marmalade-style to accompany grilled sausages.
* Vidalia, in Georgia and Walla Walla, in Washington State are famous for their extra mild onions. Some people slice them and enjoy them on sliced buttered rye bead. They are available in April and May.
* Pearl onions are white, small, and mild in taste.
There is no nutritional difference between onions.
Onions come in three colours white (5 percent); red 7 percent) and yellow (88 percent).
Chinese cooks use storage onions as a vegetable and prefer spring onions as a flavouring for their recipes and believe in its gastronomic value. Indian cooks are fond of flavouring their dishes with onions.
Middle Eastern cooks use onion extensively particularly for their stuffed grape leaves, or all vegetables that they stuff i.e. tomatoes, eggplants, green peppers, and zucchini.
Shallots, a gourmet delight, were once believed to be a distinct species of vegetable. They are in fact a particularly tasty variety of onion. Allium ascalonicum (shallot) has achieved culinary independence and holds an important position in classic French cuisine. A reduction of finely chopped shallots and dry white wine is the foundation of some of the best French sauces.
Normandy and Brittany France, are well known for their flavourful shallots. Quebec and Ontario produce shallots of good quality. Large Chilean shallots look impressive, but offer little flavour
Onions are versatile; you can eat them raw or cooked. Raw storage onions are difficult to digest. Serving slices scallions in salads as a garnish enhances flavour, eye-appeal and facilitates digestion. Onions can be sautéed, boiled, roasted, or used in stuffing.
Onions should be stored in a cool, dry place to avoid sprouting. Storage onions tend to be more pungent than their fresh counterparts.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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