January 4, 1995 in Food

The Bold And The Bashful Onions Have Personality Plus. In The Raw They Come On Strong, But Add A Little Heat And They Become Sweet And Pliant.

Linda Cornett Knight-Ridder

They are the Jekyll and Hyde of vegetables.

Raw, they are tough guys, as inyour-face and unyielding as a blitzing linebacker. Thrust into the company of salad greens, they shout out their distinctive presence. Get too close, and they’ll make you cry. Get too close to someone who hasn’t partaken, and you’re likely to make them cry.

But, apply heat and they become softies - pliant, limpid, sweet, compliantly melding into stewpot or stir-fry.

You gotta love a plant with that much personality.

Oh, and we do.

Last year, farmers in the United States harvested about 89,000 acres of onions. Per capita consumption in the United States has almost doubled in the past 20 years.

People who think deeply about such things believe onions originated in Asia. They were popular in ancient Egypt and - according to “Frugal Gourmet” Jeff Smith - were worshipped as minor gods. Spanish explorers spread the globular roots, and by 1750, onions had arrived with Europeans in New England.

Michigan and New York, with their “mucklands” and concentrated populations, were the original onion capitals. The West Coast took over 25 years ago.

According to Paul Hoshiko, a Colorado onion producer and former president of the National Onion Association, Japanese farmers who were relocated during World War II brought an interest in onions into the Rocky Mountain states.

Chain stores completed the trend, needing to buy in vast volumes from huge farms. When the onion association moved to Colorado in 1986, the nation was consuming about nine pounds of onions per person a year. Last year, it was 16.4 pounds.

“The American public is really excited about the health benefits offered through onions,” says Nancy Teksten, promotion director for the association. “They’ve become more adventuresome, eating ethnic foods that use a lot of onions.”

It’s the “health food thing,” agrees Hoshiko: back-to-basic foods that promise to lower our cholesterol, prevent cancer, trim our thighs and expand our gustatorial horizons.

According to Teksten, for years the United States has “been in a state of (onion) import” with both Canada and Mexico. Farmers in Texas, particularly, have been farming onions cooperatively with Mexican landowners to extend their growing season.

NAFTA aside, that is changing, she said. The quickly growing population of Mexico is buying produce, more of it than their northern fields can produce, so onions and other produce are moving south.

And, while the Japanese may still be providing our electronics, they are eating our onions.

One reason that Washington state, home of Walla Walla Sweets, is becoming one of the largest producers of onions, Hoshiko said, is because it is easy to ship produce to the hungry Pacific Rim from Washington ports.

And so the Asian-born member of the lily family - hotter than a firecracker, sweet as a Georgia peach - completes its round-the-world migration.

Onion Pie

Everyone has their favorite use for onions. The first recipe is an old one I clipped from a magazine years ago.

6 large onions, sliced

4 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 1/2 cups milk

1 pie crust mix

2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Cook onion slices in boiling salted water to cover in a large saucepan 10 minutes or until tender-firm; drain well.

While onions cook, melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Blend in flour, salt and pepper; slowly stir in milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens slightly and bubbles 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Arrange onions on bottom pie crust; top with eggs; pour sauce over. Cut several slits in center of top pie crust; place over filling and pinch edges to seal in juices.

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 minutes or until pastry is golden and juices bubble up near center. Serve warm.

Cream Of Onion Soup

From “Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery” (101 Productions).

1 tablespoon butter

2 cups sliced onions

1/4 green pepper, chopped

1/4 bunch parsley stems, minced

1/2 stalk celery, chopped fine

1/2 teaspoon soup herbs

8 vegetable broth cubes

2 quarts milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Cook butter, onions, green pepper, parsley, celery, soup herbs and vegetable broth cubes in covered saucepan for 12 minutes. In separate pan, heat and cook milk and cornstarch until slightly thick. Add onion mixture to thickened milk and heat again over water, being careful not to boil or heat too much, as this will cause it to curdle. Serve with croutons and a sprinkle of grated cheese.

Crusty Onion Bruschetta

From the National Onion Association.

1 French bread baguette (8 ounces)

4 ounces light cream cheese

1/2 cup nonfat or lowfat ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried basil

1 cup canned pizza sauce

1 medium onion, cut into paper-thin wedges

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Split bread in half lengthwise. Pull out some bread from center of each half, leaving a 1/2-inch shell (save for crumbs).

Using a fork, beat cheeses with herbs. Spread along length of both bread halves. Ribbon a snake of pizza sauce over cheese and make a single layer of onions on top.

Sprinkle with Parmesan and bake on baking sheet at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until onion is tender and tips are slightly blackened, but crust is not too dark. Sprinkle with dry parsley flakes, if desired. Cut crosswise into narrow strips.

Chicken Onion Couscous

From the National Onion Association.

5 large yellow onions, sliced

3/4 cup water

3 pounds cut up chicken parts, skin and fat removed

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon pepper

Couscous (see below)

Combine onions, water, chicken, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper in large saucepan. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes.

Uncover pan and cook 30 minutes longer, stirring often and lowering heat if bottom starts to burn, until onions and chicken are meltingly tender.

Make a ring of couscous on platter with chicken mixture in center. Garnish with fresh fruit such as grapes and oranges, with prunes and whole blanched almonds.

Couscous: Stir 1 1/2 cups (10 ounce package) couscous into 2 1/2 cups boiling water, cover and let stand 5 minutes or until absorbed.

Onion Cup

From “The Fine Art of Garnishing” (Lieba).

Peel the outside skin of large, welltapered onions. Saute whole onion in cup butter over low heat until tender but still firm (about 10 minutes). Remove and drain.

When cool, cut in half across the middle. Carefully remove the inside sections, leaving 1/2-inch of outer shell.

When ready to serve, fill with cooked vegetables like green peas, carrots, spinach, etc. The center layers of the cooked onion, which were scooped out, can be minced or chopped and mixed with other vegetables before filling the cups.

Onion Mums

From “The Fine Art of Garnishing” (Lieba).

Select a medium-sized, wellrounded onion. Avoid those with a double growth inside. Peel the outer skin off, leave the root end intact, but cut off any roots. Using a small, sharp knife, cut down through the onion, to the center, stopping about 1/2-inch from the root end. Make a second cut about 1/2-inch from the first; continue completely around the onion.

Place the cut onion in a bowl of steaming hot water. This will start the petals spreading. Let soak for five minutes, then place in a bowl of ice water to allow to bloom further.

To color the onion, put food coloring in the ice water and soak until the color is intense enough. Use as a garnish.

ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by A. Heitner

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