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How to store sweet onions. August 10, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love sweet onions, especially the mild, delicious Vidalias. (We don’t get Walla Walla and Texas 1015 Supersweet here in our part of scenic PA, so when Vidalias go out of season, I end up buying generic “sweet onions.”) After years of sobbing through my contact lenses while cutting sulfurous onions, discovering sweet onions was practically life-altering. I no longer wear contact lenses (thank you, laser surgery), but sweet onions are still the only ones I’ll cook with.

So, what’s the best way to store them? You can, of course, buy just one or two at a time, but I use one or two a day, so I like to buy them by the bag. With all their healthful properties, my motto is “an onion a day keeps the doctor away!” (And unlike pungent onions, if you eat sweet onions, you won’t keep everyone else away.) What would cooking be without that luscious onion flavor in omelets and home fries, soups and stews, spaghetti sauce and pizza, refried beans and fajitas, curries and mushroom dishes, or roasted or grilled with other veggies to total caramelized deliciousness? I can hardly imagine a meal without onions.

But here’s the thing: Unlike those pungent onions, sweet onions are high in water, so they bruise easily, which can lead to mold and rot. You must handle and store them with care, and inspect them often, using those that start shriveling or softening or showing signs of mold first. Even so, I would never recommend storing any onions in the refrigerator, with one exception: the sweet onion Candy. Candy is so full of water that it bleeds milky sap when you cut it, and around here, anyway, it’s always sold without its skin. If your farmers’ market or farm stand sells Candy onions, and you want to use them, refrigerate them in the vegetable crisper drawer and use them as soon as you can. I bought them for a couple of years when they first began appearing at farm markets around here, and they’re certainly good, but they were just too messy for me, and took up precious refrigerator space that other vegetables were clamoring for. Sorry, Candy!

Of course, if you end up using only part of a sweet onion (gasp, why would you do that?), you should store the rest in a zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer and plan to use the rest within a day or two. (Maybe your fridge is roomier than mine or your crisper drawers are emptier, but I think those trendy onion-shaped onion storers just take up too much room. With sweet onions, I’ve never had the onion flavor migrate out of the plastic bag.)

Otherwise, I’d store my Vidalia or Walla Walla or whatever sweet onions with my garlic, shallots, and the like, out in the open where they can get some air and avoid refrigerator condensation. I store mine in a huge stainless steel bowl, oldest on top, and check them every day. Given how fast I use them, this works fine for me. Checking our good friend Google, I saw that there were several other recommended storage methods. One is the good old technique of storing them in the legs of sheer pantyhose, knotting the hose between each onion, then hanging them in a cool, dark place like a basement. (Not, mind you, a cool, damp place like the basement of my family home.) When you need an onion, you simply cut off the pantyhose above the next knot. Another tip was to spread them out on screens so they weren’t touching, and store the screens in a cool, dark place. A root cellar is great for this if you have one.

I don’t have a root cellar (sob), or a basement, or a cool, dark place. Nor am I trying to store a 50-pound bag of sweet onions. For me, the bowl works fine. But I still had a question: Would sweet onions store better if they were placed in the bowl (or any storage situation) with their root sides down and their stem sides up? Might this add to their longevity? Or might storing them root-ends up be the answer?

Sadly, Google offered no advice. I’ve decided to try an experiment, putting the latest batch all stem-ends up, and see if I notice a reduction in spoilage or extension of longevity. If not, I’ll try them stem-side down. Has anyone found the fountain of youth for sweet onions? If so, please share it with us.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Cooking’s trinities. June 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

Silence Dogood here. You just never know what you’ll learn when you do an internet search. Having recently eaten in a Chinese restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, I came away with the question I always have after eating in Chinese restaurants: Why don’t the Chinese use onions in their dishes? Garlic, yes. Scallions (green onions), yes. But where’s the plain old honest-to-goodness onion?

I love Chinese food, but I can’t think of a dish I order (except for moo shu/mu shu vegetables) that wouldn’t taste better to me if it had onions in it. When I cook Chinese food at home, I add them and love the results. So I keep asking myself why, why are there no onions when I go out to eat?!

Mind you, China’s cuisines are vast and various. Maybe it’s just American Chinese restaurant food that shuns onions. This morning, I determined to find out. Heading to Google, I typed in “onions Chinese cuisine.” I was directed to a Wikipedia article called “Holy trinity (cuisine).”

This article didn’t address the use or lack of onions in Chinese cuisine. But boy, was it fascinating! So I decided to share what I learned with all of you cooking and food enthusiasts out there, and urge you to check the original article to find out more.

A “holy trinity” in cooking is defined as three cornerstone ingredients that define a specific cuisine, such as the celery, bell peppers, and onions that form the basis of Creole and Cajun cooking. Here are some other trinities the article listed:

Chinese: scallions, ginger and garlic, or garlic, ginger and chilli peppers, or (in Sichuan cuisine) chilli peppers, Sichuan pepper and white pepper 

Japanese: dashi (soup stock), mirin (a sweet rice wine) and shoyu (soy sauce)

Thai: galangal (a ginger relative), lime leaf/kaffir lime (leaves and rind) and lemongrass

Indian: garlic, ginger and onion

French: celery, onion and carrots

Italian: celery, onion and carrots, or (in the South) tomatoes, garlic and basil

Spanish: garlic, onion and tomatoes

Cuban: garlic, bell peppers and Spanish onion

Mexican: ancho, pasilla and guajillo peppers

Greek: lemon juice, olive oil and (Greek) oregano

Lebanese/Middle Eastern: garlic, lemon juice and olive oil

West African: chilli peppers (habaneros or scotch bonnets), onions and tomatoes

Again, I recommend that you check out the original article to find the “trinities” of other cuisines and details on how these trinities are prepared and used in the various cuisines. Let me know if you disagree with any of them!

While you’re thinking about it, what is your own personal “trinity” of essential ingredients? Yow, it’s not easy to narrow them down, is it? But I know one thing: One of mine would definitely be onions. Which brings me back to my original question. If anybody can tell me why there are no onions in Chinese cuisine, please help me out here!

                 ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

1015 onion sets?!! May 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom, gardening.
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9 comments

Mercy. Our friend Ben was stunned to see that two people had come onto our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with the search phrase “1015 onion sets.” Now, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love onions—we probably use one large sweet onion and several scallions (green onions) every day. And as I noted in an earlier post, “In praise of onion sets,” I love the foolproof ease of growing onions from sets. But 1015 sets?!! Our friend Ben devoutly hopes that if someone is planning a huge planting like that, they don’t need any help from me, ’cause I’m not going there. Plant 10 to 25 of a couple of types and see how you do, then plant as many as you want after your first successful season, that’s my advice. 1015! Sheesh.

However. Our friend Ben is not quite as dumb as a rock (and some of my best friends are rocks, or at least fossils, by the way). When more than one person comes on the blog with a search that at first blush seems incomprehensible, there’s usually more going on than meets the eye. And so it proved in this case.

A quick consultation with my good friend Google revealed the existence of the Texas 1015 Super Sweet Onion, which enthusiasts claim is the world’s sweetest onion that would put our own favorites, Vidalia, WallaWalla, and Candy to shame. The 1015 was developed in the Rio Grande Valley and was introduced on October 15, aka 10/15, 1985, hence the name.

Okay, so far, so good. Idiots aren’t coming onto the blog asking for help as first-time growers after purchasing 1015 onion sets. There’s a wonderful super-sweet onion going around. But our friend Ben wants to know, if this 1015 onion has been around since 1985, why haven’t I seen it in markets around here? Is it sold commercially under a different name? Surely it’s had plenty of time to get here. Since it’s a Texas onion, I probably wouldn’t be able to grow it, but I’d at least like to taste it.

Folks, if any of you grow or have eaten this onion, please tell me all about it! And from now on, just call me our friend Ben 1011.

What keeps YOU from crying? October 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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11 comments

Silence Dogood here. No, I’m not referring to the economy or the upcoming election. I’m talking about onions. As anyone knows who’s ever cut into one, the sulfur compounds in onions, which volatize when exposed to air, burn your eyes and make you cry. And the more pungent (i.e., oniony) the onion, the more sulfur compounds, and the more it burns when you cut it.

AAAHHHHHHH!!!! This hurts, even if you don’t wear contact lenses. If you do wear contacts, the effect is sheer torture, as the burning compounds fix themselves, vampire-like, to your lenses, apparently determined to burn holes in your eyes. Fortunately, thanks to the miracles of laser surgery, I no longer wear contacts. But I remember the feeling well. And to say the least, I still don’t enjoy having my eyes burn while chopping onions, tears blurring my vision while I’m wielding a sharp knife, or having to drop everything and rush for some Kleenex mid-dice. Dammit, if I’m gonna cry, there should at least be something worth crying over! Sliced onion, like spilt milk, just doesn’t qualify.

Because I’m not alone in my loathing of this phenomenon, plenty of advice has been handed down over the years about how to handle onions to keep them from making you cry. My own beloved mother, an accomplished cook, assured me that refrigerating onions prevented the crying effect. And, since I treated every word that fell from Mama’s lips like gospel, I spent my entire adult life wasting a good half of the crisper-drawer space in my fridge storing onions (and even garlic bulbs, just for good measure).

Then, one day, the inevitable happened: I wanted to make something and didn’t have enough onions. Rushing out to the store, I returned with a bag of onions and had to cut one, unrefrigerated, on the spot. The fear! The trembling! The outrage when I realized that somehow I wasn’t crying any more over the unchilled onions than I had been over their refrigerated cousins. Grrrrrr!!!!

Now I keep my onions on display in the kitchen in a big bowl, where their tan, yellow, white, and purple colors look gorgeous, contrasted with the paperwhite garlic bulbs that wouldn’t fit in my new ceramic garlic keeper (a gift from our friend Ben from our recent trip to scenic West Virginia). And you can bet I’m revelling in all that extra crisper space!

These days, I try to keep the crying under control by buying sweet onions, such as ‘Vidalia’, ‘WallaWalla’, and ‘Candy’. And yes, it does help. Often, I can make a dish without a single tear, and still get that luscious onion flavor. But one just never knows. Every onion is different, and I’ll still be ambushed by a tear-inducing onion once or twice a week.

As a result, I’m still on the lookout for tear-preventing techniques that actually work. Recently, I read that if you simply didn’t cut the end off the onion until last, it would keep you from crying, because all the crying compounds were concentrated at the root end. Hmmm. I typically cut the top and bottom off an onion before slicing and dicing it. These people sounded so definitive, it seemed worth a try, so I left the root end on the onions I was chopping for a whole week to see if it would make a difference. Ha! I had to resort to the Kleenex box just as often as before. Tricked again!

I was cursing the perpetrators of this latest culinary urban legend up one side and down the other when it suddenly occurred to me that I had a vast panel of experts out there in the form of you, my fellow bloggers, who have no doubt suffered from Crying Onion Syndrome (COS) yourselves. If you’ve found a cure for COS, please let us know here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Believe me, the world will be a better place! Not only will people be encouraged to cook with more onions, which, after all, are really good for you and make food taste better, but you personally will be responsible for reducing the number of tears that fall in kitchens nationwide.

         ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

My favorite vegetable. July 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
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7 comments

Silence Dogood here. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we eat a lot of vegetables. Our friend Ben and I have practically never met a vegetable we didn’t like. We draw the line at turnips, rutabagas and peas (though we love sugar snaps and like snow peas), and have not yet tried salsify, parsnips, and the more rarified veggies like opuntia pads (nopalitos). But from potatoes to arugula, carrots to corn, beans to broccoli, mushrooms to ‘maters, when they’re prepared well, we love ‘em.

We’re so fond of vegetables that we tend to concur with Thoreau, who, when asked by Emerson what his favorite dish was, replied, “The nearest.” So when our friend Ben and I were talking about some of our favorites the other night, and Ben asked if I could narrow it down to one favorite, I had to do some fast thinking. Clearly, some criteria were called for that would bring one veggie to the top. Was I up to the challenge?

Flavor wouldn’t work, since lots of veggies have fantastic flavor. Color? A kaleidoscope of gorgeous reds, greens, yellows, purples, and oranges comes to mind. Appearance? How can you choose between a gorgeous green-and-red ruffled lettuce, a perfect ear of corn, a glossy eggplant, or a spray of glowing gold or red or orange or quartz-pink cherry tomatoes? Fragrance? Uncooked, forget it. Cooked… hmmm, at last we’re starting to get somewhere.

Thinking about fragrance brought me finally to a criterion that only one veggie could meet, and it was this: What one vegetable can enhance the flavor of every other vegetable? The answer: onions. Not only is the onion the most fantastically fragrant of all veggies—just smelling onions sauteeing in butter says “cooking” to me like nothing else—but there is not one vegetable that added onion can’t enhance. Whether it’s slicing green onions (scallions) into a salad or dicing sweet onion into a batch of hot-sweet refrigerator pickles, sauteeing pungent onions in olive oil for a tomato sauce or sweet onions in butter to make mushrooms in wine sauce on rice or just to pour over cooked carrots or beans or broccoflower or what-have-you for a little flavor burst, onions add that little sumpin’ sumpin’ that bring all flavors to life.

Onions are essential in fresh and cooked vegetable medleys like soups, casseroles, curries, refried beans, salsas, potato salads, and the like. Grilled onions are pure bliss with any grilled food (including, of course, pizza). And our friend Ben is furiously reminding me to mention onion rings, onion petals, and the like, which, when they’re really done right, even put French fries to shame.

But of course I have a disclaimer: All onions are not created equal. If you think you hate raw onions, it may be because you’re used to eating Spanish onions in salads and on burgers—you know, the ones with the red-purple skins. Even our friend Ben and I don’t like those. There’s a sort of acrid bitterness to them that’s really unpleasant. And a pungent onion—the yellow and white storage onions that are often sold in bags—can overwhelm any simple vegetable dish. They’re only really good for long-cooked, complex dishes like stews, tomato sauces, and the like. That’s why we use green onions in salads, which add a little bite without bitterness, and sweet onions in most of our dishes. Sweet onions—Vidalias, WallaWallas, and Candy types—are my go-to onions for practically all dishes. They pump up the flavor of any dish without being the least bit acrid, pungent, or bitter.

So there you have it. Onions are my favorite vegetable. If you had to pick just one, what would you choose?

              ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

In praise of onion sets. April 21, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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5 comments

Our friend Ben loves planting, as long as planting doesn’t involve hewing through the impenetrable mass of roots from the Norway maple allee my home’s previous owners planted out back, thinking they were sugar maples. (Don’t get me started.) But seeds, even the big seeds like peas, are so ephemeral. (And once they hit the soil, finer seeds like lettuce and radishes become virtually invisible, except for the white-seeded lettuces.) That’s why onion sets are so satisfying.

Looking like onions in miniature, from about the size of a nasturtium bud to a quarter, onion sets have a comforting heft, a solidity, a reassuring visibility that lets you know you’re really planting something. You can lay them out on your garden bed before you plant them and actually see the configuration you’re striving for. You can space them far enough apart to make big onions (4 inches apart is plenty), or plant them closer and harvest every other onion for scallions when it sends up its green tops. (Yum! We love scallions, and plenty of ‘em, in salads and omelets, and as a condiment on refried beans, Chinese food, and many another dish.)

Or you can follow our friend Ben’s example and tuck them among your other crops. Interplant them among the lettuces; grow them in a protective ring around tomatoes and peppers. They’ll not only fill in the space between other plants, they’ll provide some companion-planting protection for the other crops, confusing pests that find their target crops by either sight or smell.

All this is good. But the very best thing about onion sets is that they’re pretty much foolproof, the ultimate low-maintenance crop. If you want to encourage someone to get into gardening, they’re a no-fail way to go. They’re so easy to plant, you can gently push the sets into worked soil with your fingers, leaving just the tips showing. They require little to nothing in the way of watering. Nothing ever seems to bother them. They just perk along, sending up their sturdy scallion leaves and growing fatter and fatter, until in late summer, the leaves begin to dry off. That’s the signal to pull up the bulbs, let them cure in the sun for a few days, and then brush off the soil, cut off the shriveled tops, bring in your harvest, and enjoy your onions!

Onion sets are even easy to buy. Evoking the country store era, they’re set out in huge open bags (that’s “sacks” to us Southerners) in farm stores, feed stores, garden centers, even groceries. You scoop the amount you want into a paper sack, uh, bag, and pay for it at the counter. (But watch out! It’s way too easy to get carried away and arrive home with two or even three times the amount of sets you need, and that’s even more true if you’re buying different kinds. If you inevitably buy too many like our friend Ben, you can give the extras away to fellow gardeners, swap them for seeds or transplants, and/or plant the extras to harvest early as scallions.)

Our friend Ben always makes a point of buying sets of ‘Stuttgarter’, a long-keeping yellow storage onion, as well as a yellow sweet onion, a white storage onion, and a few shallots, onion relatives that are planted in the same way and sold at the same time. They go into the Hawk’s Haven veggie beds, where chives, garlic chives, garlic, and multiplier onions already hold sway. (Um, can you tell that our friend Ben loves onions?! We eat them several ways each day, sauteed in butter or olive oil as a base for the signature supper dish, chopped into an omelet or onto a salad, or simply served whole as fresh-harvested scallions to add relish to a plate of crudites.) Whatever may go wrong in the garden, our friend Ben knows the onions will always go right.

But wait a minute. What do I mean, onion “sets”? What happened to onion seeds? You’re right, I love onion sets so much I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. Onion sets are nothing more than onion seeds that have been grown out through a season to form small bulbs for planting. You can certainly order onion seeds through the mail or buy them in a store like any other seed, and if you do, you’ll often find a wider selection to choose from. Because onion seeds produce a fine, threadlike leaf that’s fragile and easily lost, people who go the seed route usually start their onion seeds in flats indoors and transplant them to the garden later. The seeds will produce small bulbs—onion sets—at the end of the year, which you dry and store over winter and plant out the following year to harvest onions. There’s an intermediate stage, too. You can buy grown-out onion seedlings, with leaves resembling obese blades of grass, by the bunch, plant them out, and harvest onions the same season. Sweet and Spanish onions are often sold this way. But these seedlings require lots of care—watering, weeding, nurturing—unlike onion sets, which are bulletproof.

“Bulletproof” is music to our friend Ben’s ears, especially with so much else going on in the garden and having to haul every drop of water milk jug by endless milk jug out to the veggie beds. We’ve even added a bit of romance to our onion-growing, purchasing incredibly plump, perfect onion sets (the best our friend Ben has ever seen) from an obscure roadside stand in Boone’s Creek, Virginia, every spring while en route to our annual vacation in Greensboro and Asheville, North Carolina. (We have also purchased intriguing varieties of dried beans, local honey and jam, obscure apple varieties, and assorted other items at this stand, while studiously ignoring the truly mind-boggling array of concrete lawn art on prominent display.)

The humble onion set may not strike many gardeners as cause for celebration. But to our friend Ben, it epitomizes the best that gardening has to offer us: Not the endless struggle to force something that doesn’t grow in our climate to survive, battering our fellow gardeners with our triumph, but the simple, soul-satisfying joy of taking a crop effortlessly from selection and planting to abundant harvest. Onions are fun to plant, fun to grow, and fun to harvest. And the luscious, house-filling smell of onions sauteeing in butter, the exhilarating bite of green onion enlivening a salad, the simple power of onions to, without demanding attention, set the tone of any dish, creating a solid base for the complexity of subsequent spicing: ah. These are the moments that transform a simple plant into a powerful force for cementing relationships, creating memories, building community: good food, good fellowship. Good health, too—can’t beat those alliums for their curative and preventive powers. 

Our friend Ben says, grow your onion sets with pleasure and pride. Encourage every child you know to start with onion sets. Encourage older people who think they no longer have what it takes to garden to grow some onion sets. It’s a great beginning, and a beautiful ending, too.                 

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