Many idioms like “to know the ropes,” “raining cats and dogs,” or “high as a kite” have arguable origins. Like them, “know your onions” has several possible original meanings. Until an idiom appears in print and can be definitely dated, it is hard to pin down just when and how any phrase came into common usage.
For this month though, when we are asked to know and celebrate the onion.
The National Onion Association, onions-usa.org, celebrates only the regular onion onions: the white, yellow, and red bulb onions we use most often. Knowing your onions can be as involved a pursuit as knowing the ropes on a ship or backstage at a theater – there are so many varieties, and culinarily speaking, they have many different uses. Good cooks usually know the onion ropes – or have ropes of onions.
The first onions that come to mind and bring tears to our eyes (it’s the sulphur in them) are the everyday onions. They come in those string or plastic mesh bags and leave their onion skin bits all over our carrier bags and refrigerator vegetable drawers. The now rarely used thin, stiff, transparent copy paper for typewriters was named for this stuff: “onionskin.” These everyday onions are those best used for cooking. They’re what we want for sautéed onions on our burger, the zing and even sweetness in our spaghetti sauce (plenty of sugar in an onion), and the ‘meat’ in our onion soup. They are usually too pungent for eating raw in salads or as toppings.
|This will be French onion soup - or I could pile those onions on my burger.|
Makes me salivate just typing this caption.
For using raw, it’s best to stick to the sweet ones, the Bermudas, the Vidalias, the Walla-Walla’s and their like. They are full of Vitamin C. Bermudas are usually available year round, but the real sweet ones arrive in the late spring, just in time for summer salads. Whatever the onion, whatever the month, for cooking or for eating raw, be aware that the flatter the onion, even with those Vidalias, the sweeter it will be. Save the pointy onions for sauce.
Along with those tasty big bulbs, the allium genus, named for the Latin word for garlic, includes that same garlic as well as the shallots, scallions, leeks and chives among the dozen or so varieties grown commercially and seen in every supermarket. These add a more subtle flavor to our food. There are hundreds of other species growing in the wild. You’ll know them by their aroma, sometimes from many feet away. All the plants in this genus have pretty flowers, especially the chives, but there are many spectacular garden flowers to be grown in our gardens. They’ve got names like Globemaster, Gladiator, Mount Everest, even Powder Puff. They’re long-lasting and critter-resistant too.
Any culinary variety of onion lends bite and flavor to our food. If you over-indulge in garlic or onion, be aware of its counterbalance: parsley. Unless everyone around you has eaten the same dish, grab that piece of decorative parsley you left on the plate. Chew it well and swallow. You’ll come up smelling like a rose. (A rose – a topic for another month.)
*Another ‘foodie’ topic. I seem to be doing a lot of this lately. They usually begin as topics suggested for our community magazine. In recent months, I’ve done onions, fruitcake, soup, breakfast, and rice. Next month it's peaches. It's great to be able to write about something I love – and I love food!