A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Our Harvest: Onion

Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry.

Onions are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. Believed to have come from the fertile crescent in southeastern Asia, they found their way across Europe and Africa and were introduced to the Americas by Columbus in 1492. Onions have been an important addition to the lives of humans for more than culinary purposes. Ancient Egyptians believed that their spherical internal structure was a symbol of eternal life. Onions have even been found in the eye sockets of preserved mummies. There are records of the number of onions Egyptians slaves were allocated while building the pyramids. Ancient Greeks used onions as a form of currency to pay their hoplites, and Indians celebrated the onion as a sexual aphrodisiac. In medieval Europe, newlyweds traditionally consumed onions on their wedding night. 

The onion is a vegetable that has been cultivated for almost 7,000 years. It is the most widely grown species in the genus Allium. It’s close relatives are scallions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives. There are a variety of onion species grown for consumption including Japanese bunching onion, Egyptian walking onion (or tree onion), and Canada onion. 

Onions are a biennial or perennial plant, but are typically cultured the first year. The leaves are hollow, dark blue/green that form into a bulb under the ground. Depending on the type of onion and the length of daylight, layer upon fleshy layer grows and expands in a spherical manner. Northern, or late day onions require 14-16 hours of daylight to switch from growing leaves to making a bulb. These onions are ready to harvest in the late summer or fall when the leaves die back and turn golden brown. Southern, or short day onions are planted in the fall and form bulbs with just 8-10 hours of daylight. Some can go into storage for many months, other varieties must be consumed rather quickly to avoid rot. If they are not harvested, the onion will send up its leaves again in the spring and a central, thick, hollow stem appears with an inflorescence of white umbel flowers. When this occurs, the bulb shrinks, sending all its food reserves into the process of flowering and making seeds. 

Onion juice is a strong antiseptic and was used during wartime to disinfect soldiers’ wounds. It can increase blood circulation which is why Roman gladiators rubbed onion juice into their skin for added strength and power. Onions contain a flavonoid antioxidant, quercetin, which battles osteoporosis in women by destroying osteoclasts—the bone cells that reabsorb bone tissue. Onions contain vitamins C and B6, potassium, folate, dietary fiber, and beta carotene. They are 97% water, zero fat, and have just 30 calories per onion.  

The sulfuric acid in onions that is released when the cells are crushed or damaged by cutting, is turned into lachrymatory factor gas by enzymes. This gas is what causes severe eye irritation and watering. Some popular tactics to prevent it are freezing the onion, chewing gum, eating bread, cutting under running water, lighting a candle or chopping the onion from the top leaving the root end for last. Keep in mind, the stronger the onion the more health benefits it provides. 

The onions that grow best in the northeast tend to be spicy and best for cooking. Planted in the early spring as “sets” or “starts”, they are tiny bulbs. Growing onions from seed takes much longer and need to be started in the winter to have enough time to transplant and size up. Surprisingly picky, onions resent weeds and poor soil. They require lots of water, but not too much and they hate to be crowded. The bulbs like to be kept cool with mulch and are susceptible to a few pests and bacterial and fungal diseases. 

Some tried and true varieties we can grown in our region are:

Alisa Craig: A long day, globe-shaped heirloom that can reach astonishing sizes. It is not uncommon for them to reach five pounds. They are pale yellow, relatively sweet and mild. They are not a storage onion.

Stuttgarter: A long day, old-time favorite that is a medium-sized yellow onion. Spicy and pungent and one of the best keepers of all the long day onions. You will have these throughout the winter and into spring if stored in a cool, dry, dark location

Red Zeppelin: Long day, medium-sized, pungent, red, long storing onion. 

Sterling: Long day, white onion with tall, vigorous tops that help protect the bulbs from sun scald. Spicy flavor and disease resistant. Good storage onion.

Deep Purple Bunching Onion: Planted by seed directly in the ground in the early spring for a summer harvest, or mid summer for a fall harvest. Entire onion is eaten, green leaves and a small purple bulblet. 

Red Cipollini: Intermediate day (can be grown in the north or south). I call these “funoins” because they are so beautiful. Bright red color, very flat shape, and amazing flavor for fresh eating or grilling. These onions have a high sugar content so they caramelize beautifully. 

Delicious eaten raw or cooked, all types of onions are toxic to dogs and cats. Onions are taboo to Jainists, but celebrated with parades, monuments, and even a “Miss Vidalia Onion” beauty contest in Vidalia, Georgia. 

French Onion Dip

(You will never buy that gooey, overly salty, heart attack in a container again!)

1/4 Cup chopped yellow onions

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 Cup sour cream (you can substitute with vegan)

1/2 Tsp soy sauce or worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

On low heat, saute chopped onions until caramelized. Don’t rush it on high heat, you want the onions to be very soft and dark brown, but not burnt.

Remove from the heat and let the onions cool. Mix into the sour cream with the worcestershire sauce and salt to taste. Pour into a small container and cover. Store in the refrigerator for at least two hours. The flavor is richer the next day. Enjoy with potato chips or add to a sandwich. 

Marinated Slow Roasted Onions

4 to 6 Large onions—I prefer white, but you can use yellow 

1 Cup broth or water

1 Cup dry red wine 

2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 Tsp fresh chopped rosemary or thyme

1 Tsp salt

1 Tsp black pepper

For roasting:

4 Tbsp butter (or vegan butter)

1 Tsp fresh, chopped herbs

1/4 Cup bread crumbs

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the broth, wine, vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper.  Trim ends off the onions then slice them horizontally in half, leaving the skin intact. Pour the marinade into a large roasting pan (choose the size according to the number of onions you are using). Place the onions, cut side down in the pan. Cover and set in the refrigerator for 24 hours. 

Preheat oven 400 degrees

Flip the onions over in the marinade with the cut side up. Place one teaspoon of butter on each onion and sprinkle with herbs and bread crumbs. Roast uncovered for about one hour until golden brown, basting at least once or twice.

Quick Pickled Onions

1 Large red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 Cup water

1 Cup distilled white vinegar

1/4 Apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 Tbsp maple syrup

1 1/2 Tsp sea salt (optional)

5 Pepper whole peppercorns

Pack sliced onions into a quart sized mason jar—or a similar heat resistant container, add peppercorns and salt.

In a small saucepan, combine water, both vinegars, and maple syrup. Bring the mixture to a slow boil and then immediately take off the heat and pour the mixture into the jar with the onions.

Using a butter knife, press the onions down to ensure there are no air pockets. Let the onions sit until they reach room temperature (approximately one hour). You can eat them immediately, or cover and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. 

Tip: Fresh parsley is the cure for the dreaded “onion breath.”