Roots of Flavor: The Versatile, Inspiring Onion
Onions are the most versatile and inspiring vegetable in our kitchens
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd ColemanThere's a small table in my kitchen that holds a huge basket of onions: the big, juicy red ones I slice for salads; the amber, satiny supermarket ones, still in their red fishnet bag; a handful of flat cippoline from the farmers' market, each one the size and a shape of a doorknob. There are always purple-tinged shallots in the mix, and if you dig around, you'll probably find a few pearl onions left over from the last time I made coq au vin.
Just looking at this basket makes me feel like cooking. A roast chicken, one with lots of quartered onions to catch the drippings; or burgers, pan-fried into a heap of slivered onions that have turned crisp and brown. Or those cippoline, caramelized in a curry until their insides are like butter. As long as this basket is full, there is always something delicious to eat.
I recently encountered one of the prettiest onions I've ever seen on my friend Shannon's kitchen counter in upstate New York: It was pale yellow, about the size of a grapefruit, but tapered at the top and covered with a thin sheath of papery skin. It felt great in my hand—heavy and solid—and when she sliced into it, it nearly burst with sweet, spicy juice. Shannon, a fantastic cook from South Carolina, had the good sense to drench those slices with olive oil and throw them on the grill as she was cooking steak; when they came off, they were glossy tangles, creamy and luscious, the perfect accompaniment to the grilled meat.
It occurred to me, eating that exquisite onion, just how much I take these bulbs for granted. I can name a dozen diff erent heirloom tomatoes or apples I've sought out over the years, and I can tell you which ones are best for what recipes, but not so when it comes to this ingredient that works so hard in my kitchen. Aside from the sweet Spanish onions you find at any supermarket, and the Vidalias from Georgia and mild Walla Wallas from Washington State that make a seasonal appearance each summer, I don't know much about onion varieties, their season, or how they're grown and stored. Why was this onion, which Shannon received in her CSA box from a local farm, as juicy as the young, waxy-skinned onions with green tops that I buy at the farmers' market each spring? What made it so unbelievably delicious?
A few weeks after that late summer dinner at Shannon's, I was standing in Andy Szymanowicz's greenhouse on a farm in the hills of Ancramdale, in New York's Hudson Valley. I had tracked the 32-year-old farmer down through Sol Flower Farm, where Shannon gets her produce, and through chefs in the area who swore by Szymanowicz's organically raised onions. Two long tables set up on cinder blocks were covered with thousands upon thousands of them, skins caked with dirt and stems shriveled dry. The air was heavy with wet earth and raw onion.
"Onions aren't easy," the farmer told me. "They're slow growing, so I plant different varieties to be ready at different stages of the season." Early in the spring, he sells varieties that are pulled when their stems are still green and their bulbs are glossy and white. Come summer, he harvests sweet varieties that have developed a tougher skin and can be stored for short periods, like the ones I fell in love with at Shannon's house, an heirloom called Ailsa Craig. By the time I made it to his farm, those were gone, and he was curing onions, drying them out in that greenhouse so they will last through the winter without getting moldy or soft—standard practice for storing onions. Still, these looked nothing like the small red or yellow ones you get in two-pound bags at the supermarket, the kind that dominates the onion industry in this country. "These are Red Bulls," he said, pulling off a few purple leaves from a specimen that could have easily weighed a pound on its own. "They're my best red storage onion."