Be they red, yellow, white or green, all onions are not created equal. But without them, our lives would be a lot less flavorful.
"Onions really are ubiquitous," said Kim Reddin, director of public relations for the National Onion Association. "For a lot of people, it's pretty easy to overlook the innocent onion, but it's one of the things you'd really miss especially if you do a lot of cooking. It's a great vegetable."
Now is fall onion season, when thousands of tons of big, plump bulbs make their way to market.
"It's definitely harvest season," Reddin said. "White onions in particular. California is one of the few states that can grow white onions very well."
Many California onions are grown just for their flavor, then processed and dried.
Processed onions "are specially bred for high solids and are used for dehydration," explained Bob Ehn of the California Garlic and Onion Research Board. "You really wouldn't want to eat one of our high-solid onions, as they are low-water-content and high-pungency. (They) are used in soup mixes, salad dressings, snack foods and literally hundreds of other food products."
According to the National Onion Association, U.S. growers will produce about 6 billion pounds this year. The nation's drought impacted some growers, but the top three onion regions Idaho-eastern Oregon, Washington and California will have good crops.
"California is the only state that can actually produce onions year-round," Reddin said. "From south to north, there's such a diversity of varieties that grow well."
Among them are flat Italian red onions, a longtime California favorite that has become very popular throughrestaurant use.
"We can grow a wide variety of onions here because of our Mediterranean climate," said onion expert Ron Voss, a retired UC Davis professor. "We can actually grow the mild onions commonly grown in the southern parts of the U.S., such as the Vidalia, Maui or other sweet onions. Typically, those are harvested in May.
"We're blessed that we can also plant onions in late winter for summer harvest," he added. "Those include your sweet Spanish types; they're more robust and store better. It also includes the reds Stockton Red, Cal Red, Red Burger. We get some very good onions July, August and September."
The onions we know best fall into two groups: Fresh market (salad onions and the super-sweets such as the Vidalia type, Walla Walla Sweets and Maui Gold) and storage (Spanish yellow, Texas white and other supermarket favorites).
Onions have two distinct seasons, too. Tending toward the sweet and mild side, spring onions have a higher water content and thinner skin.
Fall onions have lower water content and will store longer often months. They're easy to recognize, with multiple layers of thick, darker skin. Fall onions tend to be more pungent perfect for savory dishes that require longer cooking time to develop full, rich flavor.
NUTRITION: One cup of raw, chopped onions contains about 64 calories. Onions are high in vitamin C and B6, and fiber and manganese. They add a lot of flavor with no fat, cholesterol or sodium.
Their antioxidant value varies greatly. The more pungent the onion, the better it is for you. Yellow onions (among the most common in California) have 11 times the amount of flavonoids as white onions. Shallots have six times the disease-fighting phenols as Vidalias. So far, research shows that mild-tasting cultivars (such as Vidalia) show little cancer-fighting ability.
SELECTION: Dry-bulb onions should feel firm and have little or no scent. Avoid onions with cuts, bruises, blemishes or soft spots.
STORAGE: Onions must be kept dry. In the right conditions, they'll keep for weeks. Whole, unpeeled bulb onions prefer a cool, dark place with plenty of air circulation. Don't store them in a plastic bag it greatly reduces their shelf life and promotes rot. A net bag works far better.
Whole sweet onions (especially spring onions with higher water content) can be stored in the refrigerator, but put them in the crisper drawer with a low humidity setting. Green onions should be refrigerated. A cut onion can keep seven days, refrigerated and stored in a sealed container.
Onions can be chopped (or sliced into rings) and frozen for later use.
PREPARATION: Onions are used in just about every cuisine. They can be sautéed, fried, roasted, caramelized, grilled or boiled. Cut onions as close to cooking or serving time as possible. Their flavor deteriorates rapidly when the cut bulb is exposed to air. This last-minute rule also cuts down on odor.
MORE INFORMATION: The National Onion Association offers tested recipes and lots of tips at www.onions-usa.org.
Prep time: 35 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
4 large red onions (yellow can be substituted)
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
2 tablespoons diced pickled jalapeño peppers
1 teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1½ teaspoons brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups soy "ground beef"
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup shredded cheddar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
To prepare the onion, trim the ends and peel away any dry skin. Use a melon baller to hollow out each onion, leaving about ª inch of flesh all around. Finely dice 1 cup of the removed onion, saving the remainder for another use.
Use a pastry brush to coat the inside and outside of each onion with olive oil. Alternatively, spray each with cooking oil.
Heat an additional 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium skillet over a medium flame. Add the diced onion and red and jalapeño peppers. Sauté, stirring frequently, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano and brown sugar. Cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute.
Add soy beef and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until hot, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.
Carefully spoon enough chili into each onion so that it mounds gently over the top. Arrange the onions on a small, rimmed baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes.
Remove the onions from the oven and top each with ¼ cup cheese. Return to the oven and cook another 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted and slightly browned.
One important tip: Be sure to leave a generous amount of flesh at the bottom of the onions, otherwise they can fall apart during handling.
This recipe is from The Associated Press.
Per serving: 321 calories; 13 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams fat (7 saturated, 8 monounsaturated, 1 polyunsaturated); 30 milligrams cholesterol; 756 milligrams sodium; 8 grams fiber; 18 grams sugar; 44 percent calories from fat.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
These onions are great on burgers, salads or vegetables.
3 small onions, red or white
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar, divided
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut onions in half from top to bottom; slice crossways ¼ inch thick. Place on baking sheet and toss with ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until tender. If you want the onions caramelized, bake an additional 20 minutes. Remove from oven and toss with remaining vinegar.
This recipe is adapted from a recipe by Ina Garten, www.foodnetwork.com.
Cooking With Sharon: Caramelized Onions