Onions are an essential crop in my garden. They're not sexy and flashy or like those gorgeous long-podded sweet peas, which were here yesterday and gone now. They're not the swoon-worthy stuff of dreams, like the many heirloom tomatoes that will ripen sometime this summer. But they're also not disdained (by others, not me) like the over-producers -- zucchini and summer squash. They're just onions, or are they?
Actually, the onions we grow -- the different types and colors, especially the early, fat, sweet, white Sierra Blanca and yellow-skinned Ailsa Craig -- are very special. At my house, they are hotly anticipated.
Onions star in dishes and complement other foods, especially vegetables. Peas cooked with chopped spring onions and lettuce, then sprinkled with slivered onion tops. Tomatoes sliced and layered with sweet white or red onion, showered with basil, drizzled with grassy olive oil, sprinkled generously with sea salt. Yellow summer squash, sliced and cooked with sweet caramelized onions and citrusy fresh thyme. A foil packet of sliced just-dug potatoes, enclosed with onion slices and olive oil, cooked to melting on the grill. Skinny, sassy, green beans, steamed and doused with a sprightly red-onion vinaigrette. Onions also are the highlight ingredient in the recipes I've included: a special Red Onion and Rosemary Focaccia and, at post-gazette.com/food, my delicious Savory Onion Scones.
Where would our dishes be without the sharp-sweet, crisp-tender bite of onion? Bland, boring and dull.
Onions are one of the first things planted in the garden. They go in just after the peas, radishes, beets and carrots. My onions arrive by mail-order, so, sometimes, I have to wait longer than I would like. Unless it's a cold, damp spring, such as last year's, when I should have waited longer.
Gardening can be a crapshoot. Gardening can break your heart. Who would have expected this dry-as-dust summer?
I always put in onion plants, not onion sets. I've never been totally happy with sets, although many people grow them with success. You also can grow onions from seeds, but they take a long time and the skinny shoots, once they emerge, need to be carefully thinned.
I buy onion plants from Johnny's Selected Seeds, which offers plenty of choices. They arrive in bunches secured with rubber bands. Slender little things, you have to dig a little hole for each and secure the soil around it, hoping the tender plant won't wither up or fall over while the roots work to get their foothold.
While the tops still are green and gorgeous, I use the whole thing. Whole-vegetable cooking -- tip-to-bulb. I slice the greens as if they were scallions to use just about everywhere. Last night, I grilled the thicker stems cut from the bulbs with about 4 inches of greens, just coated lightly in olive oil with salt and pepper. Delicious.
Recently I read an article in The Detroit News on whole-vegetable cooking. "Eat the whole plant, from stem to root." Exactly. Don't disrespect the veggies.
I once watched in horror as a recipient of my lovingly grown vegetables lopped the green tops from the sweet onions, and peeled and halved the tomatoes, then roughly squeezed out the seeds. There's so much flavor in these discarded parts.
It's nearly time to pull up the onions. My gardening books tell me that the tops will fall over by themselves as a clue that the onions are ready, and/or the tops will get dry and begin to turn brown. Bending the tops over can harm the bulb, so it's not a good idea (although sometimes I do it).
To harvest, choose a dry day and pull them out of the ground, leaving the tops intact. I layer them in perforated trays, rubbing lightly to remove surface dirt but not the skins.
My husband takes them up to our barn, where it's breezy and they can dry and cure. Rocky the cat, who sleeps up there, will keep watch, with one eye, unfortunately, on the barn swallows.
Sweet onions aren't keepers, so we use them up fast. The large red onions, the little red cippolines and the yellow keeping onions last longer to give flavor to our food during the cooler times. They're the backbone of the kitchen.
Red Onion and Rosemary Focaccia
- 1 scant tablespoon or 1 envelope active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water (95 to 105 degrees)
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup cold water from the tap
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- About 3 1/2 cups white bread flour or all-purpose flour, divided
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- Topping: 2 small mild red onions, sliced thinly into rings (1 cup), 1/3 cup loosely packed rosemary sprigs, 3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, about 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
This comes from a British book that I Americanized some years back. I often use these recipes for making bread, and the focaccia is a favorite. We had it warm from the oven and it was good, but it was even better the next day for breakfast with scrambled eggs and sliced green onion tops. Rising times will vary depending on the heat of your kitchen.
In electric mixer bowl (or large bowl), stir yeast, lukewarm water and sugar. Let stand 10 minutes until foamy. Mix in cold water and oil. With mixer on medium (or with spoon) beat in 2 cups flour and the 2 teaspoons salt to make a smooth batter. With mixer on low, a little at a time, mix in enough remaining flour to make a soft but not sticky dough. Mix in chopped rosemary.
With dough hook or by hand on floured surface, knead about 10 minutes until very smooth and silky, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary. (Even if kneading by machine, I finish it by hand.)
Coat large bowl with olive oil. Put dough in bowl and turn to oil top. Cover with dish towel. Let rise at room temperature, away from drafts, until doubled, 1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes, to 2 hours.
Coat 13-by-9-inch metal baking pan with olive oil. Punch down dough. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Roll with lightly floured rolling pin to rough 13-by-9-inch rectangle. Lift into pan; pat into corners (it might spring back, and that's OK). Cover with damp dish towel. Let rise at room temperature until almost doubled, 45 to 60 minutes. Dimple risen dough by pressing fingertips firmly into it about 1/2-inch deep. Cover. Let rise again, 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until doubled.
During last 15 minutes, preheat oven to 425 degrees.
For topping: Scatter red onions over dough; press in lightly. Press in rosemary sprigs, every 2 to 3 inches. Drizzle with oil, as desired; crush salt over it. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Lift from pan onto rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
-- Adapted from "The Bread Book" by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake (Meredith, 2002).
Savory Onion Scones
These are best eaten the day they are made, with butter or cheese, or just plain. They can also be frozen. White whole-wheat flour is widely available at the supermarket under the Gold Medal label, as well as from King Arthur. Made from a different type of wheat, it's lighter and color and milder in flavor. It's a great way to get more nutrition and fiber into baked goods, without adding heaviness. You could sneak some into just about any recipe. Keep it in the freezer or fridge, so it remains fresh.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set out a large, heavy baking sheet.
In food processor, put flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, thyme and pepper; pulse to mix. Add butter and onion tops or scallions and pulse until mixture forms coarse crumbs and greens are chopped. Add buttermilk and pulse just until a soft, crumbly dough forms.
Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Gather into a mass and put the chopped onion on top. With floured hands, knead gently 4 to 6 times, just until onion is mixed in and dough is cohesive and fairly smooth.
Pat dough into 8-inch round, about 3/4-inch thick. With floured knife, cut 8 wedges, placing 1/2-inch apart on baking sheet. Brush tops with buttermilk. Bake 18 to 22 minutes, turning pan around halfway through baking, until scones are lightly browned and crisp. Transfer to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 8 scones.
-- Miriam Rubin
Miriam Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org.