Onions and Shallots - How to cook and grow

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Onions are an essential part of our everyday cooking, a base ingredient to stocks, soups and savoury dishes. Onions are a close relative of leeks and garlic, all strong smelling and tasting they give a dish a certain depth of flavour particularly when cooked slowly to release their natural sweetness. There are many varieties to choose from, they do differ in strength of flavour, white onions are much fiercer than red onions or the common brown skinned varieties such as ‘Hygro’ and ‘Sturon’. Shallots grow in a cluster of small bulbs and are ideal for cooking whole in stews or roasts or for when only a small amount of onion is required.

How to Grow
The easiest way to grow onions and shallots is from sets, young bulbs grown specifically for planting. They are a cheap and time saving way of virtually guaranteeing a good crop. I always plant more than less, if looked after they will store for many months in a cool and dry place. Dig over the soil and rake before pushing the bulbs root side down into the soil about four inches apart and ten inches between rows. The tips should just show above the surface but you may need to protect them, as birds are a nuisance for pulling them out. Watch out for any flowering tips and remove at the first sighting to avoid bolting. Onion sets are usually in the shops from late February through to March when they should be planted for a July to August harvest. The onions are ready for harvesting when the leaves have turned yellow and wilted. Gently pull up and remove soil before leaving to dry completely.

How to Cook
Aside from the addition of chopped onion to any number of preparations they are at their best when cooked slowly with a little oil and butter until thoroughly browned giving a wonderful caramelised smell and taste to potatoes, meat and fish dishes. Adding a little vinegar (balsamic, red wine or sherry vinegar) helps to bring out the flavour and is perfect for giving a sweet and sour taste to pan fried liver. Try roasting them whole with a joint of Beef or poached in a stock with a Chicken and other vegetables or studded with cloves and bay leaves to flavour milk based sauces.

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