Layers of flavor

Serve onions raw, sauteed, fried, roasted, boiled or pickled - nothing beats their versatility.

April 06, 2005|By Donna M. Owens | By Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's Friday night at one of Baltimore's trendy new dining spots, Pazo, and the hip, well-heeled patrons who've come to mingle, sip cocktails and nosh on assorted "small plates" of nouveau, Mediterranean- influenced fare likely have no idea that there's a culinary star in the open-air kitchen.

We're not talking about executive chef Peter Livolsi - though he and his team whip up bite-sized morsels of heaven on a plate. No, the celebrity would be the onion, a veritable vegetable powerhouse, invariably at the heart of most delicious cuisine.

"We use onions all the time, yellow and red onions, plus [members of the onion family] leeks, scallions, shallots, chives, garlic and ramps, which are seasonal for spring," says Livolsi, who received culinary training at Baltimore International College and honed his skills at acclaimed restaurants such as Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park.

Since Pazo opened in December, he has created dozens of imaginative dishes that feature the onion or its kin. They include sauteed merlu (the Spanish name for hake, a delicate white fish) with mushrooms and leeks, and pane de ceci, a chickpea pancake with Banyuls onion marmalade.

"We [fry] a 3- to 4-inch cake in a skillet with a dollop of duck fat until it's golden and crisp," he says. "For the marmalade, I use caramelized yellow onions and Banyuls, a red French dessert wine, for sweetness. The fresh hot pancake comes out with the onion marmalade on top."

Not just limited to haute cuisine, the onion is a staple in everything from salads and stews to wraps and stir-fries. The versatile veggie is capable of topping a pizza, garnishing a sandwich or serving as the building block for sauces, stocks and soups with equal elan.

Onions are unbeatable in terms of utility. One can chop, dice, slice, mince and chunk them. They can be sauteed, fried, braised, roasted, baked, boiled and pickled, among other techniques.

Onions can dominate a recipe or quietly play second fiddle to balance and enhance other flavors.

"It seems that almost any dish we make will have at least a dusting of chives, a base of leeks or onions, if not a litany of chopped sweet onion," write chefs/authors Linda and Fred Griffith in their cookbook, Onions, Onions, Onions: Delicious Recipes for the World's Favorite Secret Ingredient (Chapters Publishing Ltd., 1994). "Whether standing on their own, stuffed with a wonderful filling, appearing in a salad or as part of a basic flavoring in a saute, onions are essential to virtually every cuisine."

Scientifically known as the genus Allium (from the Latin word for garlic), onions are typically yellow, red or white in color, ranging in size from small (less than 1 inch in diameter) to super colossal (4.5 inches).

They can be globelike in shape or thin and flat; their flavor varies from sweet and mild to a heat index that is sharp and hot.

Members of the onion family include leeks, scallions (also called green onions), chives, shallots, garlic and ramps, a type of wild onion available in April.

All have some degree of oniony flavor and texture, but according to the Onions, Onions, Onions cookbook, there's a near sure-fire method to identify them.

"You can crush its tissue. If you cry, it is one. ... If you get an [onionlike] odor, it is an allium. They all have it. Those that don't, aren't."

Centuries old

The late culinary doyenne Julia Child once said, "It's hard to imagine civilization without onions."

Indeed, the humble onion has been around for centuries - 5,000 years or longer, according to researchers. Many archaeologists, botanists and food historians believe onions were first grown in central Asia, or possibly Iran and western Pakistan.

Onions are one of humanity's earliest cultivated crops for good reason: They're less perishable than many other foods, typically small and thus easy to transport, and can be grown with minimal effort in a variety of soils and climates all over the world.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, at least 175 countries grow onions, producing 105 billion pounds annually worldwide. Here in the United States, about 1,000 growers in more than 20 states plant about 145,000 acres (6 billion pounds yearly), which yields $3 billion to $4 billion in retail sales.

Top onion producers? Places like western Idaho, eastern Oregon, Washington, California, Texas and Georgia (known for sweets like the Vidalia), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry sources.

"Onions are not a major crop in Maryland," says Norman Bennett, statistician with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which collects data for the USDA. "Based on the 2002 agriculture census, about 16 farms grow onions here."

Among those local growers are husbandwife team Jack and Beckie Gurley of Calvert's Gift Farm, a certified organic operation on 5 acres in Sparks.

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