Waxing philosophic about onions is a bit like writing poems to your feet. Yet where would most of us be without those? They are the foundation upon which everything else stands. They provide us with balance, structure, and support. When your dogs are barking, nothing else matters. Onions (Allium cepa) are much the same. Among the first vegetables ever cultivated, remains of them have been found that date back to 5,000 BC. It’s believed that they originated in Asia, but it’s also possible they grew wild on every continent.
If space is a consideration in your garden, onions might not be at the top of your grow-your-own wish list. After all being the most widely eaten vegetable in the world, they are available year round at any grocery store or farmer’s market. Still, I love onions and I can’t imagine cooking without them, so when I ran across onion seedlings at a nursery last March I thought, why not? And I’ll tell you, the experience of going out to my garden and harvesting an onion moments before I needed it was so satisfying that I’m doing it again this year. Homegrown onions taste better and can be harvested at any stage of their growth – as spring onions at their immature stage, throughout the summer as their bulbs begin to develop, and, if cured and stored properly, throughout the winter. Onions are with us full circle.
Nutritionally, onions are low-calorie powerhouses. They are high in vitamin C, dietary fiber, and folic acid and contain calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. They also contain the flavonoid quercetin, an anti-oxidant that may help in the prevention of heart disease and many cancers. They are anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. Eating them regularly increases bone density, strengthens connective tissue, and balances blood sugar.
Most onions are grown from seedlings or sets. Seedlings are tiny onion plants, about 5″ long, usually tied in a bundle of 50 or more. They look like baby scallions. Sets are tiny, immature onion bulbs, like cocktail onions. I have yet to try growing onions from seeds, but perhaps one of these days I’ll get ambitious. There are certainly more varieties of seed available than there are seedlings or sets, but growing from seed takes more space and time and is more of a challenge. I’ve been happy with seedlings.
Onions are photo-periodic, which means they require a certain number of daylight hours before they begin to form bulbs. There are three categories of onions. Long-day onions will not begin forming bulbs until the days are 14-16 hours long. These do better in the north (in North America) where the days are longer. Short day onions, which do better in the south, need 10-12 hours of daylight to bulb. Intermediate-day onions do well when daylight reaches 12-14 hours.
It also helps to know your latitude. Northwest Arkansas, where I’m growing, is at 36º N, so the best onions for me are intermediate-day onions which work well from 32-42º N. Luckily, the nursery where I got my seedlings knows this and orders onions that work best in this area. The varieties I’m growing are Super Star, the only white onion to win AAS distinction, Candy, which works almost everywhere in the United States, and Red Candy, a beautiful, sweet, mild red onion.
I learned a lot for this post from Dixondale Farms (http://www.dixondalefarms.com). They have been growing onions since the early 1900’s and supply onion plants to the entire country. From them I learned that the perfect onion has 13 rings. This also means that it has 13 leaves, since each ring is a modified leaf. Don’t worry, a smaller onion is not inferior in taste, it’s merely smaller. The more leaves an onion grows before the days get long enough to trigger it to begin forming a bulb, the bigger it will be.
I planted my onion seedlings on March 17th. First I made sure the soil was fairly pulverized, as Barbara Damrosch advises in her The Garden Primer, and then I made three long shallow furrows down the length of the bed. I sprinkled a balanced fertilizer into each furrow.
The fertilizer I used is Nitron’s (http://www.gardeniq.com) Nature Meal Vegetable Fertilizer (4-8-4). Those numbers correspond to the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This one is made from feather meal, bone meal, sulfate of potash, and alfalfa meal. I purchased it at Ozark Natural Foods (http://www.onf.coop).
I spaced the seedlings approximately 4-6″ apart and used a hand cultivator to gently bring in soil around them, incorporating the fertilizer, until the row was planted. Then I firmed the soil around each little plant all the way down the row and watered them gently. I’ll keep an eye out for weeds because shallow rooted onions don’t like the competition and weeds can rob them of needed nutrition. I’ll also keep an eye on the weather and if it looks like we’re going to get another freeze, I’ll water them well, mulch them, and cover them with burlap for protection. I’ll mulch them anyway when they get about a foot tall to maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds. When they get about as big around as my finger, I can start to harvest some as spring onions, which will give the others more room to develop.
Another nice thing about growing onions is you can see what they’re up to. When the bulbs begin to form, their shoulders start to emerge from the ground, unlike, say, potatoes, where you’re left to wonder what they’re doing under there. Then in late summer, when the bulbs are done forming, the leaves begin to brown and fall over.
Now you know it’s time to cure them for storage. Gently, (they may seem sturdy, but it’s important to be gentle with them as any bruised places will rot over time) remove them from the soil, and allow them to dry for a couple of days. This can be done in the garden, or if rain threatens, in a warm, dry, place. Next, find a dry place out of the direct sun with good air circulation and let them dry a good three weeks or so. You can then cut off the tops and store them in mesh bags, or even panty hose with a knot between each bulb, or you can braid their leaves together and hang them. Barbara Damrosch advises weaving in a strong piece of twine to help keep it all together. Keep them cool, dry and well-ventilated, and use any compromised onions and those with thick necks first. It should be noted that sweeter onions do not store as long as the more pungent varieties.
In the kitchen, onions are incredibly versatile. From France’s mirepoix, to Italy’s battuto, Spain’s sofrito, or cajun cooking’s Holy Trinity they are the humble beginning from which all else stems. They can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches. They can be pickled. They can be stuffed and baked, sauteed slowly and pureed into a classic soubise, or allowed to release their sugars until they carmelize. They are essential in stocks, soups, stews, and casseroles. And is there anything more sublime than French onion soup?
Every time I grill I cut one in quarters from the top down, keeping it intact at the base, then I wrap it in foil with olive oil or butter, or maybe some blue cheese and let it cook until the outside is almost burned, and the inside is meltingly sweet and mild. So good alone or with grilled meat. And what about onion rings? Or sausages with peppers and onions? Get outta here!
One of my favorite restaurant jobs was at a now-shuttered restaurant in Manhattan called Elettaria. It was a romantic, lamplit, cozy place with tiki-themed cocktails (27 rums on the menu!) and an open kitchen. Our chef, Akhtar, was of Indian origin and his food was laced with exotic Indian spices. I worked there from the day it opened until the sad sad day that it closed. Oh, the stories I could tell. I loved to watch Raphy scrupulously sharpen his knife and prepare the onions for the crab meat resala which was served with a turmeric laced soubise, (I’d also be hoping that he was making family meal). There was such zen precision to those perfect thin slices. I’ve thought about how an onion is cut ever since. Sliced, diced, minced, chopped, grated, it matters. Take your time with your onions. Prepping them and cooking them. If that prep makes you weep, make sure your knife is nice and sharp, or try refrigerating your onions before you slice them.
As Nigel Slater says in his gorgeous, passionate, wonderful Tender (2009), one of my all time favorite cookbooks, “Get the onion part of a dish right and you are halfway towards a good supper. Get them wrong and no amount of cooking and clever stunts can quite put matters to rights.” Amen to that, Nigel.
In other news:
Everything survived the crazy hail storm on March 25th.
Beet, chard, kale, lettuce, arugula, broccoli raab, cavolo broccolo spiragriello, collard greens, spinach, and radiccio seeds have all been planted out. Pea and radishes seedlings are just starting to emerge and the fava beans are doing great. I planted some flat-leaf parsley plants in the leaf bed because I love it so and it’s challenging to grow from seed.
The perennial bed is slowly coming to life and the camassia and allium bulbs I planted last November have surfaced. I’ll take you on a tour of all that soon.
Asparagus spears are thrusting through the pine straw mulch! Too bad I can’t eat any until next year.
Seed potatoes from Seed Savers arrived in the mail and I’ll be planting them forthwith and telling you all about it next week.
I also MUST start tomato and pepper seeds. I should have started eggplants a month ago and I didn’t and that just has to be okay. You can’t win them all.
I hope everyone and their gardens are doing great, that you’re all happy, healthy, well-rested, and looking forward to your spring!