“If it stinks, it works.” Short and to the point, that’s just how one prominent cancer researcher summed up the therapeutic properties of onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots-all members of the 500-plus allium family. While garlic-the star of the family-receives a great deal of attention, these other alliums have powerful healing benefits as well.

Indeed, “Eat an onion a day” is a common recommendation for people trying to ward off cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infections, and cancer. Onions contain twenty-five active compounds, including prostaglandin A-2, which helps lower blood pressure, and quercetin, a potent antioxidant. They are also a good source of the sulfur compounds that stimulate the production of enzymes responsible for neutralizing free radical compounds linked to cancer.

A growing body of research confirms that lesser-known members of the allium family also deserve our attention. Leeks, scallions, and chives contain the same compounds that help combat heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Leeks are an excellent source of folacin (folic acid), a nutrient linked to the prevention of birth defects and one not readily available in many foods. In addition, most alliums are antibacterial and antifungal, so they can help ward off colds and relieve stomach upset and other gastrointestinal disorders.

While some health experts’ first preference is to recommend eating raw onions, cooking alliums makes them more versatile and does not significantly reduce their potency. Cooking alliums also adds sweetness to dishes, as heat converts their sulfurous compounds into sugars. How you decide to cook alliums affects both their texture and sweetness. Pan-frying onions, for example, makes them crunchy and caramel-sweet, while sauteing them in a bit of oil can turn them soft as well as sweet. Sweating-sealing onions in a tightly covered pot set over low heat-causes them to release their juices and fully intensifies their flavor.

Heat, however, can diminish the flavor of chives, and if shallots brown while cooking, they taste bitter. Shallots are usually chopped fine and cook quickly, so when sauteing, wait until other ingredients have already softened before adding them. While not as nutritionally dense as other alliums (except for their high concentration of the antioxidant quercetin), shallots are useful for enhancing the flavor of other healthful foods. Delicately flavored chives are a good source of vitamin A, making them a nutritious, as well as tasty, garnish. Sprinkle chopped chives on dishes just before serving, or blend them into cold dishes.

ONION CONFIT WITH RED AND YELLOW PEPPERS

Makes 4 cups

This savory “jam” or condiment is so rich you’ll find it hard to believe it contains just two tablespoons of oil. Enjoy it on polenta, with grilled vegetables and beans, or simply heaped on a slice of grilled bread as a bruschetta.

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large Spanish onions, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into
  • 1/2-inch-wide strips
  • 1 large yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into
  • 1/2-inch-wide strips
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Heat oil in large, heavy nonreactive skillet set over medium heat. Add onions, stirring to coat with oil. Saute, stirring often, until onions start to wilt, about 10 minutes. If onions begin to color, reduce heat.
  2. Stir in garlic and continue cooking for 3 minutes. Add peppers and cook, stirring often, until onions have collapsed into a soft, golden mass and peppers are very soft but still hold their shape somewhat, 50 to 60 minutes.
  3. Stir in vinegar, orange zest, and rosemary. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove pan from heat and cool confit to room temperature before serving. (Confit can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.)

LEEKS VINAIGRETTE

Serves 4 to 6

Blanched leeks are chilled and then dressed with a simple vinaigrette to make a lovely first course. It is imperative that you clean the leeks to eliminate any trace of grit. White wine vinegar flavored with tarragon is a classic French seasoning. If you cannot find a commercial version, make your own tarragon vinegar by mixing one teaspoon minced fresh tarragon leaves into one tablespoon regular white wine vinegar.

  • 12 medium leeks, each about 1 inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar (see note above)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Ground black pepper
  1. Bring several quarts of water to boil in large pot. Trim leeks by removing green leaves 2 inches above white part. Slit vertically to within 2 inches of base. Clean carefully under cold running water or in sink filled with cold water. Use fingers to separate layers, making sure that no grit remains. Drain well.
  2. Use kitchen twine to tie leeks in bunches of three. Each bundle should be securely tied in three places: around middle of white part, 1 inch above white part, and 1 inch below tops of leaves.
  3. Place leeks inboilingwater. Reduce heat to gentle simmer. Cook until white parts of leeks are soft when pierced with tip of a knife, about 8 minutes.
  4. While leeks are cooking, fill large bowl with cold water and ice cubes. Using tongs, carefully lift leeks from boiling water and plunge them into ice water. Untie leeks so they can cool completely. When leeks are chilled, remove them from bowl and drain thoroughly.
  5. Combine mustard, vinegar, and salt in small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil, a few drops at a time; dressing should have the consistency of a thin mayonnaise. Add pepper to taste.
  6. Arrange leeks in dish large enough to hold them in single layer. Pour dressing over leeks and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow flavors to develop. Place two or three leeks on each individual plate and serve.

LETTUCE AND GREEN PEA SOUP WITH CHIVES

Serves 6

This soup looks and tastes like springtime. It is casual yet delicate, homey yet elegant. It’s also fairly light, so it makes a good first course. Frozen baby green peas are fine in this recipe.

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 large celery rib, chopped fine
  • 1 medium white onion, halved and cut into thin slices
  • 5 cups Light Vegetable Broth (see recipe on next page)
  • 1 small head Boston lettuce, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
  • 1 cup shelled baby green peas, fresh or frozen
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
  1. Heat oil in medium stockpot. Add celery and onion and saute over medium heat until vegetables soften, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add broth and bring to boil. Immediately reduce heat to simmer. Cover pot and cook gently for 15 minutes; the onions will still be slightly firm.
  3. Stir in lettuce and peas. Simmer uncovered until lettuce is wilted but still bright green, about 3 minutes. Season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into individual bowls. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon chives over each bowl and serve immediately.

LIGHT VEGETABLE BROTH

Makes about 5 cups

In this case, “light” does not mean bland. This full-flavored broth makes a good base for any vegetable soup because no one specific taste dominates. It is best when freshly made.

  • 2 large celery ribs, chopped coarse
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped
  • 1 small zucchini, cut into small chunks
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and chopped coarse
  • 6 sprigs fresh parsley leaves
  1. Place celery, onion, carrot, zucchini, potato, parsley, and 7 cups cold water in medium stockpot. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 45 minutes or until vegetables are very soft.
  2. Remove pot from heat and cool broth and vegetables to room temperature.
  3. Strain broth, pressing lightly on vegetables to extract some of their liquid. (If you press too firmly, the broth will become cloudy.) Immediately refrigerate or freeze any unused broth. This broth keeps in the refrigerator 2 to 3 days, but maintains its flavor better if stored frozen.

ONION SANDWICH

Makes 4 sandwiches

This onion sandwich is in homage to James Beard, one of America’s early and most influential food writers and teachers. The delicate onion sandwich he made helped establish his first business, a catering service. This is a heartier version, in which whole-grain bread and fresh herbs compliment the onion. If you wish to make just one sandwich, simply brush a few drops of the vinegar on a slice of onion, then brush on the oil. The sprinkling of salt is important to the flavor of this sandwich, so don’t skip it unless, for dietary reasons, you must.

  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mild olive oil
  • 4 slices Spanish onion, each about 1/4 inch thick
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted margarine, softened (see note below)
  • 8 slices five- or seven-grain bread
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill leaves
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh
  • Italian parsley leaves
  1. Whisk vinegar and oil together in small bowl. Pour half of vinegar and oil mixture into platter large enough to hold onion slices in single layer. Arrange onions over marinade, taking care to keep them intact. Pour remaining marinade over onions and let stand 10 minutes.
  2. Spread 1/2 tablespoon margarine on four slices of bread. Center onion slice on each buttered slice of bread. Sprinkle pinch of salt over each onion slice. Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon each of dill and parsley over each onion slice. Spread remaining margarine on remaining 4 bread slices, and use them to close sandwiches.
  3. Trim away crusts and cut each sandwich in half lengthwise, making two rectangles. Serve immediately, or wrap sandwiches in plastic and refrigerate up to 2 hours.

Note: Sometimes the taste of a particular ingredient can make an important difference in a recipe. If you are not strictly vegan, butter would be my first choice in making this sandwich. If you only use margarine, the sweet butter flavor of Spectrum Spread is excellent.

ROASTED SHALLOTS

Makes 12 roasted shallots

I first tasted these when working in the kitchen of a three-star restaurant in Paris. Roasted shallots have the creamy texture of well-sauteed onions and the same sweet taste, only heartier and with a slightly bitter edge. I usually suck them right out of their shells, they are so delicious. Try them with cooked brown rice or kasha, or with grilled mushrooms.

  • 1/2 pound large shallots (about 12)
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Use your fingers to peel away any loose papery skins from shallots.
  2. Place shallots in center of piece of aluminum foil large enough to enclose them in a packet. Pour oil over shallots. With your hands, rub shallots until they are coated with oil. Sprinkle shallots with salt. Seal packet well.
  3. Place foil packet in oven and bake until shallots are very soft to the touch, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
  4. Remove packet from oven. Cool until warm or room temperature. (Shallots can be refrigerated in foil packet for 2 days. Bring to room temperature before using.) When ready to serve, open packet and cut off pointed tip of each shallot using knife or scissors. Trim thin piece from bottom of root end. Grasping shallot firmly at root end, squeeze it, applying pressure upwards as if you were trying to squeeze contents from a tube. The soft shallot will pop out of its skin.

FOUR ONION SALSA

Makes 2 1/2 cups

This recipe combines red onion, sweet onion, scallions, and shallots in one spicy salsa. I find this salsa, which is adapted from a recipe in Lee Bailey’s Onions (Clark son Potter, 1995), works as more than just a topping for tacos and chili. I like to use it as a chunky salad dressing, poured over romaine lettuce. It is also good tossed with cooked basmati rice to make a lean and colorful salad.

  • 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced (about 1 1/2 cups) medium red onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cup) 1/2 medium Vidalia onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 small scallions, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1 large shallot, minced (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1 fresh or canned jalapeno chile, seeded and minced
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Combine tomato, red onion, Vidalia onion, scallions, shallot, and jalapeno chili in medium bowl.
  2. Pour orange juice, vinegar, and oil into jar with tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Shake vigorously until blended.
  3. Pour citrus dressing over tomato and onion mixture. Using a fork, toss to blend well. Let salsa stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving to give flavors time to meld. This salsa does not store well; its flavors change, and the tomatoes turn mushy. Leftovers can be mixed into salads or added to tomato sauce for pasta.

SPRING DRESSING

Makes about 3/4 cup

On a sunny, warm day, this vibrantly flavored dressing is wonderful over sliced tomatoes or with fresh, sillken tofu. I also recommend it on a baked potato or mashed into steamed new potatoes. Of course, it is also nice on a salad of delicate, leafy lettuces straight from the garden.

  • 2 medium scallions, green and white parts chopped
  • 1/4 cup lightly packed fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 cup  extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Place scallions, parsley basil, garlic, and lemon juice in blender or food processor. Blend greens to a smooth paste.
  2. With motor running, add oil in slow, steady stream. If dressing seems too thick, gradually blend in 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Dressing can be refrigerated in a tightly closed container for 2 to 3 days, although some of the fresh herb flavor will fade.)

STUFFED ONIONS AGRO DOLCE

Serves 4

In Italy and other Mediterranean countries, onions are enjoyed for their own sweet flavor, not just as a flavoring for other foods. Here’s an example of how good onions can be on their own. “Agro dolce,” or “tart and sweet,” refers to the marriage of the tart vinegar and sweet dried fruit used in this dish. Unsulfured golden raisins can be found in natural foods stores; they give this dish a special quality. If necessary, though, use one-third cup of regular raisins in their place and eliminate the currants.

  • 4 medium onions, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter
  • 3 large plum tomatoes
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 2 tablespoons dried currants
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2/3 cup Light Vegetable Broth or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  1. Bring several quarts of water to boil in large saucepan. Peel onions and cut across tip at point where sides of onion start to curve towards top. Add onions to boiling water and cook 2 minutes. Use slotted spoon to remove onions from pot. When cool enough to handle, use melon bailer to scoop out each onion, making a cup with two layers of onion still intact.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve, seed, and dice two tomatoes. Combine diced tomatoes, cooked rice, raisins, currants, oregano, and vinegar in medium bowl. Firmly pack mixture into hollowed-out onions.
  3. Place onions in baking dish just large enough to hold them. Cut remaining tomato into six slices; discard end slices with skin. Place one remaining slice over top of each onion. Pour broth into bottom of pan. Drizzle oil over onions. Cover pan with foil.
  4. Bake until onions are soft when pierced with knife but not mushy, 50 to 60 minutes.
  5. Transfer onions to plate. Pour liquid) from baking pan into small saucepan. Simmer liquid until reduced to 6 tablespoons. Spoon a generous tablespoon of reduced liquid over each onion and serve warm or at room temperature.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Food Facts and Storage Stats

* PUNGENT FACTORS. An onion’s pungency is shaped by three factors: the soil in which it grows, its variety, and how long ago it was harvested. In general, the six most common varieties, known as storage onions, are the most pungent.

* STORAGE ONIONS. Storage onions (including the most common yellow globes) are cured after harvesting, during which the outer skin firms and turns papery, and some moisture evaporates, concentrating the onion’s flavors. Storage onions should keep for up to a month without sprouting or rotting if stored in a cool, dry, dark place with good air circulation.

* SWEET ONIONS. The best way to store sweet onions, such as Vidalias from Georgia, Walla Wallas from Washington state, Texas 1015’s, and Hawaiian Mauis, is knotted in pantyhose and hung so that air can circulate around them. Or, wrap sweet onions loosely in newspaper and store in the refrigerator.

* SCALLIONS. Also called green onions, scallions are the most nutritious alliums, with three times more vitamin C than onions. Their green tops contain up to five thousand times the vitamin A found in onions. They also are a good source of folacin and even contain some iron. The best way to store scallions is to wrap them loosely in plastic and refrigerate.

* SHALLOTS. French cooks consider shallots with a flavor halfway between onions and garlic-the most aristocratic allium. Shallots are also used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking. Avoid those that are withered, dried, or sprouting. Shallots keep for about a month in a dry, cool place.

* LEEKS. Generally sold loose or in bunches, the best leeks are no more than 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Avoid those that swell into a bulb at the root end, as they may be woody. Keep leeks in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in plastic. Trim and clean them only when you are ready to use.

* CHIVES. Seemingly the most ethereal allium, one tablespoon of chives contains almost 40 percent of the U.S. RDA of vitamin A. Garlic chives-flat, grasslike blades often used in Chinese cooking have a stronger flavor than regular chives, with a hint of garlic. Look for them in Asian markets.

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