The gem of the onion family Shallots: These beautiful, mild-tasting vegetables are not cheap - unless you grow your own.

In The Garden

March 05, 2000|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

I was introduced to shallots many moons ago in a recipe for liver pate. They were eye-poppingly expensive, but I wanted to treat Gary, my then-new husband, so I splurged. Small, with copper-colored, papery skin, they looked undistinguished on the outside. But inside, they were beautiful -- iridescent, like purple-striated opals. Gary declared it the best pate he'd ever tasted. Twentysomething years later, I still make liver pate, and occasionally substitute sweet onion for shallots, but he can always tell the difference.

Shallots (Allium ascalonicum) are named for the Israeli port of Ascalon (now Ashqelon), which once grew vast quantities. Milder and sweeter than their onion cousins, shallots add a rich, unique flavor to sauces, pates, salad dressings and dips. Thomas Jefferson discovered shallots while whooping it up in France under the guise of diplomacy, and brought some bulbs back to America when he returned in 1794. He grew them at Monticello every year thereafter until he died.

French red shallots are the usual variety available on grocery shelves here, but there are also yellow or white varieties including Griselle, Chicken Leg and Dutch Yellow. Expensive in markets, (though less so than when I first encountered them) they're relatively cheap and easy to grow yourself.

Planting

Shallots are photoperiodic, which means they are keyed to light. They do their best growing as the days get longer, so most companies ship sets, the small bulblets that you "set" in the ground, for spring planting. "The earlier you can get them in, the more productive they'll be," says Tim Forsman at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. One caveat: Shallots are much more frost-sensitive than garlic, so they need a fairly thick mulch (3 inches or more) if planted before the end of hard frost.

"A spring planting around March 15 will produce shallots by mid-July," says Sharon Kazan of W. Atlee Burpee Co. in Warminster, Pa. Burpee ships shallots from the end of February through May, depending on the customer's planting zone. (They ship to Zone 7 in Maryland around March 15.) Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Torrington, Conn., which sells Dutch Yellow, Holland Red and French shallots, ships at the beginning of March, while Johnny's Seeds doesn't begin to ship shallots until April.

Cultivation

"Shallots are not a difficult vegetable to grow," says Joyce Hemingson, a horticulturist at Shepherd's Garden Seeds. "Cultivation mainly requires watering and keeping weeds away."

One reason for the weed-free rule is to minimize the habitat for pests.

"Weeds sometimes harbor thrips, which can make little white elongated spots along the green shallot tops, though the infestation is rarely bad enough to do much damage," says Terry Allan, vegetable trials manager at Johnny's Seeds.

Shallots' main requirements are water, full sun and loamy soil.

"They like a rich, well-drained soil," says Kazan. "Diluted kelp fertilizer with a little side-dressing of compost and something like 10-10-10 or 5-10-10 works well."

Sufficient water at the proper times is one key to good production.

"Their roots are shallow like onions so you have to be careful to keep the soil moist," Kazan adds. Applying about two inches of mulch helps with both water retention and weed reduction. (Thin the thicker prefrost mulch if you planted earlier so the new green shoots don't smother.)

Shallots need a regular water supply while they are setting roots and leaves but need less water as they near harvest, a cycle which describes our recent spring-to-summer rainfall (or lack of it) perfectly. The reduced water keeps them from rotting and encourages curing (drying) of the outer layers. Like onions and garlic, they need to be cured by air-drying in a shaded or dark place.

Dig shallots, which grow in rings around the original "set," when bulbs are 1-2 inches in diameter and tops are withered. They will store well at relatively low humidity and low (but not freezing) temperatures, though I hang mine in string bags from the ceiling of our sheltered porch, which varies tremendously in temperature depending on sunshine and wind, and they do just fine. Whenever I need some for cooking, I step out and poke them with a broom handle to let a few tumble down.

Sources

* W. Atlee Burpee Co.

300 Park Ave.

Warminster, Pa. 18974

800-888-1447

www.burpee.com

* Nichols Garden Nursery

1190 N. Pacific Highway

Albany, Ore. 97321

541-928-9280

www.gardennursery.com

* Johnny's Selected Seeds

1 Foss Hill Road

Albion, Maine 04910-9731

207-437-4395

www.johnnyseeds.com

* Shepherd's Garden Seeds

30 Irene St.

Torrington, Conn. 06790-6658

860-482-3638

www.shepherdseeds.com

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