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by Louise Fiszer & Jeannette Ferrary

"There are two types of onions, the big white Spanish and the little red Italian. The Spanish has more food value and is therefore chosen to make soup for huntsmen and drunkards, two classes of people who require fast recuperation."

Things have gotten considerably more complicated, at least in terms of onions, since Alexandre Dumas wrote these words a century ago. Onions have become overwhelming, not only because there are so many kinds, but also because the categories are arbitrary. Should onions be grouped by color (Red, Yellow White, Green)? Or by shape (Round, Oval, Slender)? Or by personality traits (Sweet, Assertive, Tear-jerker)? Or should we invent yet another category, say Rollability? This would probably serve most purposes as well as any other, and it provides a practical method of distinguishing a scallion from a baseball shaped yellow globe.

Among the onions that don't roll particularly well are leeks, mild and elegant and ivory toned, with their way of aristocratizing the simplest melange. Whether one uses green onions or scallions (which are identical) depends on what they happened to be called in a given area. Ramps, popular in parts of the south and Appalachia, derive from an Elizabethan word for wild leek. Chives and garlic, species related to the onion, are like botanical opposites in terms of their edibility: we eat the bulbs of garlic and the green shoots of chives which have hardly any bulb at all. The Ascaloniona onion, named for the ancient Palestinian town with which it was associated, is known to us today as the shallot.

As for the Rollables, they can be vast improvements to any meal -- from soups to stuffed roasts to sauteed vegetables -- and they can be the meal all by themselves: baked, stuffed, creamed, boiled or fried into rings. An old Creole recipe for onion juice mixed with sugar is supposed to be good for just about anything, especially colds. It is, according to The Picayune Creole Cook Book, "almost an infallible remedy."

Although all onions become sweeter when cooked (but not overcooked), there are varieties of sweet onions that can taste as sweet as oranges. These include Georgia Vidalias, Texas Supersweets, California Imperials, Hawaiian Maui Sweets and Washington State Walla Wallas.

Raw or cooked, all these sweet onions taste identical and can be used interchangeably in recipes. The appearance and quality of all sweet onions is generally excellent as they are hand-selected for packaging. This personal attention, combined with their short season and abbreviated shelf life, contribute to their high cost.

Compared with regular onions, the sweets have a higher sugar content and are low in the sulfur-containing compounds that make ordinary onions pungent and irritating to the eyes.

Merchandisers are trying to do to sweet onions what nature did not: give them designer logos and distinguishing characteristics so that consumers will develop brand loyalty. These efforts do not affect taste, but do affect prices.

At the center of all this merchandising are onions like the Texas Grano 1015Y Supersweet. It was developed in the early 1980's by Dr. Leonard Pike, a professor of horticulture at Texas A & M University at College Station. The 1015Y is named for its optimum planting date, October 15. It is nicknamed the "million dollar baby" because of the money spent to develop it.

Mountain-grown Maui Sweets are big yellow or yellow-white onions cultivated in Hawaii's volcanic soil. Vidalias date to the early 1940's when Dr. Henry A. Jones, a research director at the Desert Seed Company in El Centro, California, developed the F1 Hybrid Yellow Granex, which is called the Vidalia after the Georgia town where it was grown. By Georgia law, only onions grown in designated areas of 19 southeastern counties may be marketed as Vidalias. Texans are quick to point out, however, that because of their state's milder climate and earlier growing season, Vidalias are often planted in south Texas, then transplanted to Georgia when the weather warms.

The round, golden onions known as Walla Wallas are grown in Walla Walla County in southeastern Washington and in part of the adjacent Umatilla County in northeastern Oregon. Walla Wallas include a few strains, such as the French onion whose seeds were planted in the Walla Walla area around 1900 by Frenchman Peter Pieri (he had imported the seeds from Corsica, where he had served in the French army) and the Arbini, named for John Arbini who developed this mild, sweet onion in 1925.

Most experts agree that the taste of onions depends on growing conditions, the sulfur content of the soil and the weather: type, appearance, size and shape give few clues to quality. In recent years, onion rivalry has resulted in official Onion Challenges, one of which was held in McAllen Texas a few years ago. Entries were judged under categories like: marinated, baked, rings, appearance and raw. Rollabiltiy, it seems, was not even a consideration.

As for the question of sociability, the onion family comes complete with both problem and solution: "If Leekes you like, but do their smell dis-like, Eat Onyons, and you shall not smell the Leeke; If you of Onyons would the scent expell, Eat Garlicke, that shall drowne the Onyons' smell." (Dr. William Kitchiner, The Cook's Oracle)

Triple Onion and Potato Soup

3 tablespoons butter or oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 yellow onions, chopped
1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
3 potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup cream
salt and pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives

Heat bitter or oil in a large saucepan. Cook garlic, onion and tomato for about five minutes. Stir in dill, potato and stock. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. In food processor, puree about one-third of the soup mixture with the cream. Return to the pot, reheat gently and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with chives and serve.

Green Onion Cocktail Biscuits

1 cup flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into bits
4 green onions, minced
1/2 cup cottage cheese
5 tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 425 degree F. Grease a baking sheet. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Stir in the remaining ingredients until a soft dough forms. Knead the dough gently on a floured surface and roll into a 10x16-inch rectangle. Cut into rounds with a two-inch cutter and place on the prepared sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Split and fill with your favorite spread or with cold meat and mustard.

Sweet Onion and Zucchini Relish

1 large sweet onion, diced
2 yellow or green zucchini, diced
1/2 cup raisins
3 tablespoons catsup
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt

Place all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan with one cup of water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for about 40 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Great with hot dogs and hamburgers.

Leek, Red Pepper, and Goat Cheese Frittata

4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
2 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1/4 pound goat cheese
6 eggs 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper

In a 12-inch skillet, heat two tablespoons of the butter and the oil. Cook the leek and pepper until very soft, about eight minutes. Melt in the goat cheese. Remove the mixture to a large bowl and let it cool for a few minutes. Add the eggs, thyme, salt and pepper to the leek mixture and whisk together until combined. Add the remaining two tablespoons butter to the skillet and heat. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet and cook over medium heat until the eggs are partially set. Slide the frittata onto a large platter; flip it back into the skillet with the uncooked side down. Cook for another three minutes. Let cool and serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Rigatoni with Caramelized Pearl Onions and Mushrooms

2 pounds pear onions
3 tablespoons butter or oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 pound freshly cooked rigatoni
1/2 cup rated Parmesan cheese

Cook the onions in boiling water for two minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle, peel and remove the roots. In a medium skillet, heat the butter. Cook the onions over high heat until lightly browned. Lower the heat, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic and mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, until the mushrooms are slightly browned. Add the vinegar and sherry, cook over high heat until almost all the liquid evaporates. Stir in the stock, bring to a boil, and add the parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss with rigatoni and sprinkle with cheese. Serve warm.


Jeannette & Louise are Bay Area freelance food writers and the authors of several books including Sweet Onions & Sour Cherries and A Good Day for Soup.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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