Meet the Wild Allium Family

Apr 1, 2021Fun Food Facts0 comments

We got to the root of this group’s most famous members: onion, garlic and shallot

By BCFA Special Correspondent Courtney Linder

onions

Image credit: @franagain / Unsplash

Much like a French Mirepoix, the best things in life include carrots, onion, and celery. We’re imagining comforting chicken soups, dumpling dishes, and chowders. Following our conversation with the humble Miss Carrot of Doylestown, we’ll be sitting down to chat with another star of the Mirepoix, the versatile and ever-accommodating Sir Onion, a delectable white variety.

Not only that, but Sir Onion was kind enough to bring along a few other members from the root vegetable family, specifically a few folks from the Allium line: Miss Shallot and Grandpa Garlic. Our conversation follows.

Q: Thanks for joining us, Sir Onion. I admit that in finding an interview subject, it was difficult to narrow down the root vegetables, as there are truly so many of you. Why don’t you make the case for yourself and your fellow Alliums, why are you the best root vegetables out there?

A: It’s simple: if not Alliums, who are the most versatile of the root family? It seems like you humans are constantly throwing us down in a pan with glistening oils, sautéing us for our fragrant aroma; it’s not only myself and the rest of the onion family, but my cousin garlic, too. We’re honestly not as pungent as you may believe, either. Around the middle of the 20th century, grocery stores began introducing new varieties of onions that included more sugar. So yes, you can call me sweet.

Q: Well…I have to address the elephant in the room, though, there are plenty of people who simply can’t eat onions without a trip to the bathroom. What say you to that?

A: Ugh, yes, you’re right, and I’m totally embarrassed. Still, we just can’t help it, it’s part of our DNA. Onions, as you may know, contain allicin, a compound that is produced when garlic or onions are chopped. Long story short, it provides antioxidant benefits and can even reduce inflammation, but there is also a chance that allicin can cause stomach pain, bloating, cramping, and intestinal gas. If you just can’t get enough of me and my siblings, though (and I can’t blame you), opt for a sweet variety of onion, as they’re less rich in allicin.

Q: Truthfully, not all root vegetables are really roots, right? Can you tell us more about that distinction?

A: By definition, to be a true root veg, you should not only grow underground and have an edible part beneath the soil, but you should also play the role of a root, sucking up moisture and nutrients from the ground. So, your new acquaintance, Miss Carrot, is certainly a part of my clan, i.e. root vegetables, in that sense, despite the fact that she is not an Allium. Some of my other close (and delicious) friends are root veggies but not alliums: horseradish, radish, rutabaga, parsnip, and turnip. Generally, though, when we talk about root vegetables, we’re talking about any underground part of a plant that we eat. That includes vegetables that are bulbs, tubers, corms, and rhizomes. So by that broader definition, I am most certainly a root vegetable. And while we’re at it, I should note that not all Alliums are root vegetables! For instance, one of my all-time favorite cousins is the leek, but he is not a root vegetable, as you humans prefer to eat his ears, which stick out of the ground. Same thing goes for chives and scallions!

Q: I understand this can be a dicey subject – sorry, pun intended – but when people are cooking with members of your family, it can be understandably confusing to figure out when you should use shallots versus onions. What advice do you have?

A: Not to worry, I understand that it’s our solemn duty to add richness and depth of flavor to dishes, and truth be told, I’m proud to serve in that capacity. The Allium family has been working in this role for far longer than you probably realize. Native American hunter-gatherers collected over 100 different types of wild Alliums for food and medicinal purposes. Over time, we’ve come to realize that my wife, Ms. Shallot (it’s the 21st century, she doesn’t need to take my name!) has a far milder, yet complex flavor than what I or my red or yellow siblings can impart.
So I would defer to her for your egg dishes, cream soups, sauces, and stir frys. I hate to say it, but she’s also a good match with halibut, salmon, and tuna?I try not to get jealous, though, because as they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Q: I’m sure she loves you best, though! You brought up your siblings, the red and yellow onion, and I understand that there are plenty more of you, too. Can you tell me about how you all are different?

A: Absolutely, it’s a common misconception that yellow and white onions are pretty much the same. I, for one, beg to differ. As I stated earlier, sweet onions are better for folks that have a sensitivity to allicin. That’s where my little sister, Vidalia comes in. The drawback, though, is that she’s less nutritious than I am. Then there are the so-called “hotter” varieties, which are best for eating raw. For example, when you’re eating a hamburger, you should probably call up my brother, the Empire Sweet cultivar. Red onions are even more interesting?I should know, my mother is one. Some of them are pungent, but some are mild and sweet. The best way to tell the difference? Their shape! Sandwich onions, which you may use on hamburgers as well, are mild. These guys are wide and flat. By contrast, hot red onions are round or oblong. They’re higher in antioxidants, but they also make you cry (I should know, my aunt was one). As for me, I’m a Western White, and my claim to fame is my mild and light flavor. Because I’m not overly pungent, you can even add me to a salad! My only downside is that I am a bit inpatient; use me up quickly or I may go bad on the shelf!

Q: What about green onions, though?

A: Green onions are my siblings, but they are also me! Well…me as a juvenile. You see, green onions are just regular old onions, but harvested at an early stage, while the bulb is small. Scallions and green onions are the same thing, so you can use those names interchangeably. You can also call them spring onions or salad onions. They’re an Allium, but not a root vegetable, because they’re the top part of the onion that shoots out of the ground. While they expire quickly, you can place them in a plastic bag with pinpricks in it and store in the fridge for max shelf life. There’s also another fun trick that you try out: keep the tassel of roots in place and place the scallions in a small glass jar of water on your windowsill. The tasty green shoots at the top will continue to grow for weeks, even months. Just be careful not to let them go for too long, as they’ll become dry and flavorless. Remember to change out the water every other day.

Q: I would be remiss not to ask about Grandpa Garlic. My understanding is that he’s mostly stuck to his roots throughout the years, and is hesitant to adopt change. What’s your take on that assessment?

A: Funny you should say that; Grandpa has always been a bit stubborn. After all, garlic has pretty much retained its original size, sweetness, and nutrients over the years, as farmers have never really tried to change them over the years a true rarity in the history of agriculture. I’ll key you into a little secret, as well: the best time to plant garlic is in the fall, right around the time that the kids are heading back to school. Why? Because root growth begins in the fall. You’ll have a wonderful harvest come springtime.

Q: While we’re on the subject, how is Grandpa Garlic doing? What’s his health situation like?

A: To be perfectly honest, he’s doing well compared to some of his counterparts in the garden. There’s so much that you humans must consider when preparing an Allium like garlic; depending on how you cut and cook it, the health benefits will vary drastically. Back in 2001, a group of Israeli food chemists actually discovered that most conventional ways of preparing garlic will diminish the nutrients contained therein. If you put garlic into a frying pan for two minutes, it’s reduced to little more than a flavoring agent. If you microwave it for 30 seconds, 90 percent of its cancer-fighting powers are destroyed. So, I’m begging you to take care of Grandpa Garlic: chop, mince, slice, or mash your garlic, and then let it hang out for about 10 minutes before you introduce it to the heat.

Sources:

Robinson, Jo. Eating on the Wild Side. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.

CooksInfo. Root Vegetables. CooksInfo, 17 June 2020, www.cooksinfo.com/root-vegetables.
Stay tuned for more interviews with stars of the garden in upcoming newsletters!

Is there a particular fruit or vegetable you’d like to hear from? Email us at info@BucksFoodshed.org.

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