Thursday, August 28, 2014

Vegetable Feature: Onions

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
Shallots and Cipollini Onions

You may have noticed by this point—especially if you’ve been a Harmony Valley Farm CSA member—that we’re really into onions. Our belief is that year-round, daily consumption of onions is not only important for our health but also for the flavor profile of the foods we prepare. These two convictions guide what Farmer Richard refers to as “our onion line-up.” Over the course of the season, an onion in some shape or form (we include garlic, leeks and ramps in this group, too) is included in each CSA box and, if it’s market season, you’ll be sure to find an assortment of these on our stand. Health-wise, the benefits of consuming onions are undeniable. Research suggests that onions may prevent blood clotting, lower your heart rate and guard against cardiovascular disease. Nutritionally, the presence of vitamin C makes onions an excellent source of dietary fiber and folic acid. Meanwhile, they also provide you with healthy doses of calcium, iron and quercetin—an antioxidant compound that, in layman’s terms, helps ward off disease. For the sake of comparison, onions contain approximately three times the amount of quercetin than kale, a widely regarded super food! It’s important to note that the potential nutritional benefits are most present in strong onions, which have a greater concentration of sulfur compounds (these are the culprits that make you tear-up when slicing and dicing your onions). The good news is, however, that the nutritional benefits remain largely intact regardless of whether you’re eating your onions raw or cooked—though some research does suggest that the potential benefits may be more effective when onions are consumed raw. 

Onions growing on raised beds with silver mulch to deter thrips
A great deal of time, energy and passion goes into growing these almighty onions. Farmer Richard recently reminisced on the evolution of Harmony Valley Farm’s approach to onion production. Basically, onions are inherently difficult to grow. One of the major impediments is a tiny insect called the thrip, which is highly elusive even in the face of organic insecticides. Thrips leave the onions with miniscule holes, which create a pathway of entry for various types of bacteria, fungi and disease, not to mention that in a wet environment, onions may become water-logged which can lead to soft-rot. Faced with the double challenge of thrips and the discovery that many of his onions contained some soft-rot, Farmer Richard reached out to the UW-Extension which promptly advised him to begin growing his onions on raised beds (imagine mounded rows on which crops are grown). Essentially, this would cause water to run off, which would maintain a drier growing environment. Unfortunately, doing this would require not only the purchase of a large amount of equipment, but labor demands would also intensify as mechanically cultivating weeds becomes less manageable with this specific approach. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing, 15 years ago Farmer Richard made the leap and converted the entire farm to a raised bed system. Paired with the use of reflective, silver mulch to deter the destructive thrips, Harmony Valley’s onions couldn’t be happier.

 By the time they get to you, Harmony Valley’s onions have had quite the journey. They are the first seeds to be planted in the greenhouse, which keeps them from freezing in the cold of early February.

Once they reach a certain size, they are transplanted into the field. “Transplanting two acres of onions and shallots takes several days,” Richard reflects. Then consider that all of the harvesting, topping and cleaning that takes place is done by hand, without the help of any mechanized equipment. Industrial, highly mechanized farms in California produce shallots that are never once touched by a human hand. They’re cheap, but there is an element missing—what Farmer Richard calls the “hand-
manicuring” component. We forego mechanization when it comes to our onions because using machinery can, and often does, cause damage, which means we wouldn’t be able to provide you with the same high quality onions that we currently do.

Egyptian Walking onions with radishes
Depending on the variety, onions are either slow or fast growing. The first onions to be harvested in the spring—Egyptian Walking onions and Potato onions—are actually planted along with garlic in the fall. Scallions—both green and, as of this year, red varieties—are the next to arrive, followed by cipollini and candy onions, such as the Sweet Spanish onions we’ve had lately. These onions are
relatively fast growing, which means they tend to store for shorter periods of time. With the arrival of late summer, the farm crew will prepare to harvest what we call yellow and red “storage onions,” which, by this point,
Potato onions in the field
have been in the ground for a few months. While they take quite a while to mature, these are the onions that will carry you through the cold winter months and into spring.

Onions being harvested by Harmony Valley Farm crew
It’s time now to return to that one aspect of onions that we all dislike—the fact that they can be a major pain to work with. Their strong smell is renowned, and in fact Egyptologists believe that onions were often entombed with the dead because it was thought that their strong scent would prompt the non-living to breathe again. That certainly says something about the olfactory power of the onion! And then there’s the aftermath that comes with cutting into an onion. Slicing through an onion releases the sulfur compounds held within, which often results in teary eyes and runny noses. As Farmer Richard says plainly, “The crying is a little hard to love.” Given that the onion has been around since 2500 B.C, it is not surprising that there are countless theories on how to minimize this pungency. Some of the older, more odd suggestions include holding an extinguished matchstick in your mouth or clenching a wooden spoon between your teeth while slicing. Less strange, but nonetheless ineffective methods involve immersing or slicing onions under running water, or wearing protective goggles. What has been shown to work well is simply refrigerating your onions over night or for a few hours prior to working with them. You might still find yourself tearing up, but the impact of the compounds will likely be subdued. On the other hand, cooking and caramelizing your onions highlights the natural sugars that have always been there but have been masked to varying degrees by the sulfur compounds. So, the next time you hold an onion in your hand, do as we do—look beyond the tears and appreciate the onion for the highly nutritious, masterful vegetable that it is!

Harvested onions in the greenhouse

Creamy Sweet Onion Soup
Recipe adapted from a recipe for Creamy Vidalia Onion Soup 
featured at

6 sweet onions (about 6 cups sliced onions)
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt, plus more to taste
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks, beaten
1½ tsp paprika
Ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ tsp hot pepper sauce (optional)
2-4 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1. In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions; saute until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
2. Stir in flour and salt and mix thoroughly. Gradually add chicken broth, stirring constantly. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.
3. When onions are very tender, stir in milk and cream. Heat through. Remove ½ cup soup and put it in a small bowl. Slowly mix the egg yolks into the soup in the small bowl. Once the egg yolks are incorporated, pour the milk and egg mixture slowly into the remainder of the soup in the pan. Heat through, but do not allow the soup to boil.
4. Stir in paprika, black pepper and hot pepper sauce (optional). Serve hot, and garnish with chopped parsley.

Green Lentils, Rice and Caramelized Onion
Recipe borrowed from Salma Hage’s book The Lebanese Kitchen.

Serves 4
1 cup green lentils
4 Tbsp olive oil
5 small onions, sliced
½ cup instant (easy cook) rice, rinsed
2 tsp salt
½ tsp tround cumin
½ tsp seven spices seasoning*
½ tsp black pepper

1. Put the lentils in a pan, pour in water to cover, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet or frying pan, add the onions, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes until caramelized. Add the rice and salt to the pan of lentils, replace the lid and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the rice and lentils are tender and the liquid has been absorbed.
3. Stir in the cumin, seven spices seasoning, pepper and caramelized onions and serve warm.

*Seven Spices Seasoning Mix: You can buy this blend of spices pre-made, or you can make it yourself (see recipe below). It is good to use as a seasoning for sauces, meat, grilled vegetables and more.

Lebanese Seven Spices Seasoning
5 Tbsp ground allspice
3½ Tbsp ground black pepper
3½ Tbsp ground cinnamon
5 Tbsp ground cloves
4 Tbsp ground nutmeg
4 Tbsp ground fenugreek
4 Tbsp ground ginger.
Mix the spices together thoroughly and store in an airtight container in a dark place.

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