What's In Season: Alliums
To most home cooks, alliums mean onions, garlic and shallots, and they have no season for celebration. Instead, because these storage crops are available year-round, they’re often taken for granted and seldom given credit for the great flavor and health-boosting properties they contribute to so many of our meals.
But come spring, these pungent bulbs and their botanical relatives suddenly appear in diverse, fresh forms that demand our attention. Suddenly we’re seeing—and smelling—leeks, fresh spring onions, green onions, chives, and, if we’re lucky, scapes and wild varieties. Indeed, if alliums have a season, it’s spring, and there’s no better time to learn more about them.
Nutritional and Medicinal Value
It’s believed that in Ancient Egypt, the onion’s circle-within-a-circle structure made it a symbol of eternal life. The Egyptians also recognized the practical value of alliums’ chemical properties in promoting good health.
According to Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), the Egyptians used garlic to treat all manner of ills, from cancer to fatigue. Eventually, Native Americans and hunter-gatherers around the world also used alliums internally and externally to enhance performance and treat sickness. More recently, onions were used as germ-fighting field dressings in the Civil War, and garlic was used in the same way by Russian medics in World War II.
A misguided use of these pantry staples? Not so, writes Robinson, citing studies that indicate 1 milligram of allicin, the active ingredient in garlic, is equal to 15 international units of penicillin. And while eating garlic won’t provide the same benefits as being injected with penicillin, “common bacteria are 1,000 times more likely to become resistant to modern antibiotics than to garlic,” says Robinson.
Another study cited in Eating on the Wild Side found garlic to be the most potent anti-cancer fighter among a number of vegetables that were tested. All in all, garlic was found to be antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-cancer, antiviral and anticlotting—meaning great for killing viruses, bacteria and keeping cells healthy while being good for the heart by encouraging blood flow.
But one key thing to remember about garlic when considering its benefits: Once it is chopped, it must be allowed to sit for 10 minutes before cooking in order to make allicin, the beneficial compound that makes garlic one of the healthiest foods you can eat. This is not a worry, however, when you eat your garlic raw. So if you can manage to eat lots of raw garlic, you will not only repel people with your scent—you also will scare off disease.
In the Monterey Bay region, alliums can be grown year-round and flourish best in well-drained, fertile soil and full sun.
Slow growing onions and leeks are usually grown from seeds in hothouses and then transplanted to the field in order to get ahead of the weeds. Garlic can also be grown from seed, but commercially it is generally produced by planting cloves from the previous season.
When planting alliums, note that some varieties need more space than others. For example, elephant garlic requires three times the room to grow that traditional garlic needs, and shallots need very little room at all.
Leeks are especially worthwhile to grow yourself because unlike onions and garlic, they lose their antioxidant properties just a few days after they’ve been harvested. Additionally, the most beneficial parts of leeks are their green portions, and growing your own means you can harvest them while the green parts are still young and tender. (Or overwinter them for the fattest stalks and strongest flavor.)
Leeks also make beautiful flowers—I once sold an acre of cut leek flowers for 10 times the price that the leeks would have fetched had I harvested them before they flowered.
If you grow your own hardneck garlic, you’ll be guaranteed a supply of tender garlic scapes, or curling stems, in the spring. And growing your shallots will save you some money, as they tend to be more expensive than some other alliums.
The first alliums on the spring market scene are green garlic, spring onions and leeks, and they fill the void until the next crop of cured and dried onions are available later in the year. They also offer the farmer something else to sell before the bulk of spring and summer crops comes in.
Spring onions refer to any onion picked young and intended to be used for both the bulb and green stalk. Any variety of onion can be harvested as a “spring onion,” but my favorite is the Red Torpedo, also known as “Red Long of Tropea,” originated and traditionally grown in Tropea, Italy.
This large onion has strong amino acid sulfoxides, the compound that turns into a volatile gas as the enzymes are released when the onion is sliced with a knife. Once that gas reaches your eyes, it reacts with the eye’s natural moisture to produce a mild sulfuric acid that irritates the eyes and makes them water.
Fresh Red Torpedo onions are pungent and tasty, reminiscent of an especially good red onion but with a football shape. When dried, they mellow a bit and are best caramelized into a wonderful, sweet pile of allium heaven.
My second favorite spring onion is a small, flattened, high-brix yellow Cippolini (pronounced chip-oh-lee-knee) onion, which literally means “little onion” in Italian. They come in red, yellow and white varieties, and their small size makes them conducive to roasting whole.
Leeks are basically a bundle of tightly wrapped leaf sheaths without a bulb and are milder than onions. Elephant garlic is not a true garlic but in the species of a leek. Its cloves are much larger than those of regular garlic, making them easier to peel, and the flavor is milder.
Jackie Thurman, co-owner of ACME Coffee in Seaside and known around town for sharing her unusual garden varieties, divided and passed along a peculiar onion to me called “Walking onions.” These tiny perennial onions are a great novelty and conversation piece that literally “walk” over and plant themselves in the soil once their seed head develops.
Walking onions can be eaten both in a fresh, green state or dried. They need their own designated bed with open soil in which to “plant” their seed head, and they are more prolific if helped along by bending the onion until the seed head meets the soil.
“It’s a lot of work for a little food but a good way to have a fresh green onion that produces its own offspring, “ Thurman says. (And if you don’t have a friend with walking onions to spare, you can order their seed from Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore.)
Finally, a rule of thumb if you’re looking for maximum disease-fighting power in your onions: the stronger the flavor, generally the more potent they are at protecting you from illness. Scallions pack 140 times the phytonutrients that the average white onion does, and garlic chives have more antioxidants in them than even the hottest of red onions.
Foraging, Purchasing and Storing your Alliums
You don’t have to grow your own alliums to harvest them—a beautiful variety called three-cornered leeks (or wild garlic or wild onions) can be found growing in the wild in our region. John Cox, chef at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, forages them in Big Sur and uses their beautiful white flowers and other parts of the plant in his cooking. (Ramps, the wild allium touted by such celebrity cooks as Martha Stewart, however, do not grow on the West Coast.)
When purchasing alliums, look for firm flesh and a strong scent, as both indicate freshness. If they are cured and dried, look for a tight skin. Garlic and shallots should have plump bulbs.
Spring onions, green garlic and leeks all should be kept in a plastic bag within the refrigerator to keep them from drying out. Conversely, dried onions, shallots and garlic should be stored in a cool, dry place outside of the refrigerator.
Cooking With Alliums
• If chopping onions irritates your eyes, cookbook writer, chef and vegetable kingdom guru Deborah Madison suggests in Vegetable Literacy (Ten Speed Press, 2012) that you forget the matches between your teeth and merely keep your knives sharp and chill your onions before chopping.
• Never discard the green tops of your alliums or the young plants that you thin from your garden. The greens are the most nutritious part of the plants, and they add immense flavor to pots of soup and other dishes. Either sauté and use as a topping or ingredient in whatever you’re cooking at the time or store in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator until you have enough to cook down for stock.
• I like to sauté tons of shallots in butter or, better yet, rendered duck fat. I have little patience for peeling and chopping alliums, so for me it’s best to get it over with by spending the time all at once. The shallots can then be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator for a quick, flavorful addition to egg dishes, chopped hearty greens, grain dishes and more.
• Leeks can also be sautéed in large quantities in the same way; Robinson suggests freezing them in small quantities for use in cooking later.
• An exciting project for the adventurous chef is making “black garlic” by heating and aging garlic for 30 days, mellowing the heads into sweet, soft flesh with a taste reminiscent of balsamic vinegar and tamarind. This exotic, ebony-colored garlic is currently prized in high-end cuisine, and is sometimes used to make black garlic chocolate.
• Don’t forget about the classics that feature alliums as their star, like onion tarts, French onion soup, leek and potato soup and chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. But also be imaginative, and experiment with allium condiments that can be used to flavor and fortify any savory dish. Within the recipes we provide with this story, for example, you’ll find instructions for making garlic ghee, garlic confit and a roasted garlic vinaigrette.
Try This Recipe: Romanesco Salad with Roasted Garlic
RECIPES: For additional recipes, see www.ediblemontereybay.com/recipes for Butter Poached Green Garlic Butter and Green Garlic Ghee, Creamy Roasted Garlic Hummus and Roasted Spring Onion and Yogurt Dip.
EXPLORE: This summer’s Gilroy Garlic Festival will take place July 25–27 and is a good place to learn more about garlic and experience new ways of preparing it.