These pungent members of the lily family offer a versatility that appeals to many

March 22, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Onions might make you cry, but there's not a cuisine in the world that doesn't cry out for this unmistakable, pungent root vegetable.

They've been a part of the human diet for so long that no one is sure of their place of origin (possibly Central Asia or Persia). Or when they were first eaten (probably a staple of the prehistoric diet). Or when they went from being wild to being cultivated (certainly the Chinese were growing them in gardens at least 5,000 years ago).

Humble as it is, the onion, in its many guises, has sustained mankind for millenniums, but it wouldn't have made it without a certain culinary charisma.

"Onions are so incredibly versatile," says British cookbook author Rosemary Moon, whose recent book, "Onions, Onions, Onions" (Firefly, 2000, $19.95), makes that abundantly clear. "If you make them the star of the dish," Moon says, "you can't go wrong."

Onions can be eaten raw or cooked, and they work in appetizers, salads, soups, side dishes, entrees, condiments and baked goods. Slow-roasted, they turn into a gloriously sweet surprise.

Moon, in a phone interview from her home in Sussex, England, waxes rhapsodic over such dishes as onions and apple chutney; onion, orange and tomato salad; spiced fried onions with rice; and Singapore-style onions with curry paste, all in the new book.

Part of the versatility of the onion comes from the fact that it is part of the very large lily family. A variety of onions can be found in even the most average supermarkets. White onions and yellow onions are familiar; there are also pearl onions, scallions (spring onions), shallots and leeks (see accompanying story).

Ann Wilder, owner of Baltimore-based Vann's Spices, likes to use a mix of onion types in the same dish, especially stews or roasts.

"I use leeks a lot to add a second onion dimension -- or a third, if you count garlic." (Garlic is a relative, another member of the lily family.) "It gives a really rounded flavor. I'm also inclined to finish off a dish with spring onions, which have a really bright flavor."

She uses red onions in raw preparations, such as salads, and Bermuda or Spanish onions for cooking. ("They're so readily available.") She doesn't use the sweet onions, such as Vidalia, in cooking. "The flavor note I'm looking for is a lack of sweetness, especially when I already have a lot of sweet in a dish, like a stew or pot roast, where I already have wine. I don't want to add any sweetness."

But a lot of people do, at least in the United States: Sweet, or fresh, onions are among the fastest-growing products in the market.

"Fresh onions are harvested from the ground and put right in the grocery," says Tanya Fell, director of public relations for the National Onion Association, based in Greeley, Colo. "They have thin skins and more water content. The higher water content is what gives them a sweeter taste."

The fresh onions are available from March to August. Storage onions -- yellow, white and red, pulled from the ground and placed in storage over the summer -- are available all year, but are best between August and April.

Although onions grow everywhere in the world, they grow better in some places than others. And guess what? Maryland, home of splendid Silver Queen corn and succulent tomatoes, is not hospitable to onions.

"They do not grow well around here," says Tony Evans of the marketing department of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It has to do with climate and soil type."

Onions and their relatives like "muck soil," Evans said, which he describes as "gummy black soil, tending to swampy." He's had good luck with shallots in the garden, but not onions.

He attributes the fact that other members of the onion family -- scallions, shallots and leeks -- are showing up at farmers' markets and supermarkets to a wave of immigration that began in the late '80s. "Culinary taste has been on the upgrade in America" ever since, he says, as the new immigrants seek sources of familiar ingredients and, through availability and ethnic restaurants, share their tastes with others.

Whatever is driving it, onions are a growth industry. Per capita consumption of onions was 18.6 pounds in 1998, according to the latest available U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. That figure, said Fell of the national onion group, is 53 percent higher than it was just 15 years ago.

While part of that may be culinary sophistication, some of it is surely due to the growing recognition that when it comes to health, what you eat is what you are.

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