Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Allium Family - Onions, Garlic and Leeks - oh my!

When do you think the last time you made a lunch or dinner without the basic flavors of onion and garlic.  Really now - think of fresh and dried.  Think of prepared foods, frozen pizza, pasta sauce, sausage, etc. 

It might seem rather silly to blog about such humble and basic flavors that we consume every day, but I have a need to pay homage to one of my favorite groups of vegetables.  You all know them, you all love them, but do you know ALL of them?  And do you love ALL of them?  Do you know what they look like, how they taste, and how to use them?

These are the FLAVOR MAKERS!  These siblings make food taste good, and can elevate a simple dish to simply amazing.  Use them fresh whenever you can.  Don't be afraid of their smell or strong taste, they mellow with cooking.  And for heaven's sake, hush about garlic breath.  If you and your family (or sweetie, or date) are eating the same food, you'll smell the same, right?

I've praised shallots and leeks on here before.  I'll guess there are a lot of people that still haven't tried using them in everyday cooking.  Hopefully, that will change.  I never knew what they were until about 10 years ago, either!  Maybe I'd heard of them, but surely didn't buy or use them.

I grew up with garlic salt and garlic powder, the same in onion form, and dried onion flakes.  Hey, it was the 70's!  I remember buying my first raw onion and whole head of garlic in wonder and great anticipation of how I would use them. 

So here's a tiny dissertation on the Allium Family - garlic, onion, leeks, shallots, scallions and chives.  I even have photos!  And a little recipe at the end.  What I don't have is chives.  I have a gigantic plant in my garden, but hey!  it's February in Minnesota and we're hunkering down for a lovely heavy dumping of snow tomorrow.  I eagerly anticipate the first chives of spring :)


One at a time then, shall we?

The humble onion.  My preference is yellow.  Red is nice in some instances, and there's white, also.  Yellow has a sweet flavor and is the most multi-purpose, in my book.  I buy a 5 pound bag of regular yellow onions.  You can sub-divide the color into Vidalia, Walla-Walla, and more, but plain old plain old works great.


I've seen the professional chefs on the tele slice and chop these in a very poetic fashion.  Me?  I cut the ends off, cut the onion in half, peel off the top layer of skin, and then slice and chop.  Works fine for me.  I love the scene in "Julie & Julia" where Julia Child chops a mountain of onions in her French cooking class.  She was FEARless.

Here's the yellow onion, ready to slice and dice.


So now what do you do with it?  Put it in everything!  Truly, for the most part, onion goes in so many dishes.  Soups, stews, chowders, chilis, tacos, casseroles (hotdish, anyone?), roasts, meatballs and meatloaf.  Minced fine into pasta salad.  And sliced and slow cooked for a very long time, it becomes the beginning of a blissful pot of French Onion Soup.  One little note:  I do not put onion in my Red Sauce.  That includes spaghetti, lasagna and pizza sauce.  Nope.  You can, though :)

Our next, very familiar member of the family, garlic!


This is a HEAD or BULB of garlic.  It is not a CLOVE.  Can you do anything with a whole head?  Oh, yes indeed!  Cut off the top 1/3 of the head (not the root end, the stem end) to expose all the cloves inside.  Keep the papery outer layer intact for the most part.  Sprinkle the exposed cloves with salt and pepper, a tiny drizzle of olive oil, then put in a small baking dish, cover tightly with foil and bake at 375 for about 40 minutes.  It should be golden and soft.  When it cools, squeeze the cloves out of their papery skins.  From here, you have lots of options.  Mash them up in your potatoes for the best garlic mashed potatoes ever.  Add them to softened butter or some olive oil and use as a spread on bread or toast.  Add them to a soup you plan to puree.  Roasted garlic is sweet and mellow and complex and really, really good.

Here's a clove, separated from the head (bulb) and sitting by my little clay "garlic pot" that I've had for years.  Great for storing unpeeled cloves.



And here he is, peeled, ends removed, and ready to smash and chop:


Put down the garlic press, please.  It's a rare day I use one.  When you crush a garlic clove in a press, you're releasing the most garlic oil possible, and that's not always what you want when flavoring a dish.  If you need your garlic to be really fine and smooth, something that can't be done with a knife and board, then use the press.  Otherwise, lay the clove under the flat side of your big chef's knife, and smash down with the heel of your hand.  Now that it won't slip and slide on the board, proceed to chop or mince as your many recipes dictate.  (Home remedy tip:  if you feel a cold or bug coming on, take that chopped clove, pop it in your mouth and wash it down with water.  Great anti-bacterial, anti-viral properties.  If you're a wimp, put it in a tablespoon of honey first.)

Scallion.  Green onion.  Spring onion.  Essentially the same thing.  I grow onions in my garden in two ways - sets and seeds.  Sets are tiny little yellow onions that you stick in the dirt, green stems grow up and the bulb gets bigger.  Seeds grow into green onions, and if allowed to grow long enough, will develop large bulbs as well.  But I pick these green and use them fresh and raw.

From the grocery store:



And ready to chop:

So go ahead and trim off any soggy or wilty green parts, plus the very tiny bit of root end, and then use the whole thing from there!  Rinse them off under cold water, first, and dry.  These are best raw, as they have a fresh and delicate flavor.  Use them to top baked potatoes with sour cream, or on top of tacos or burritos.  Great on top of chili, with cheese and sour cream.  They make a fine pizza topping, either before or after the pizza is baked.  Add them to green lettuce salads and pasta salads.  They make a great sprinkling garnish for many finished dishes.  A good rule of thumb is, if you like onion flavor and want some fresh and subtle taste, scallions are your friend.  One last tasty treat - brush the whole, unchopped scallions with olive oil and add to the grill with your fish or steak or burgers - only a minute or two per side to soften and mark them.  Sweet and tender and delicious!

On March 17th, pretend you're Irish and add some green onions to your potatoes before mashing.  Mash it all up together (they'll stay mostly intact), and call it Champ, and enjoy!  Great under a thick serving of Beef and Guinness Stew.

Leeks.  Sigh.  They are so good.  Ever bought one?



It looks like a grandpa green onion, doesn't it?  Here's what you do:



Do NOT throw away the dark green top part!  Clean them off well between the layers and drop into a freezer bag.  The next time you make chicken or beef or vegetable broth, put them in the pot.  Lots of flavor you don't want to waste there.  Recipes call for the "white and light green parts" and that's what you now have.

Leeks are often dirty things.  It's a reason why some people don't use them.  Scuse me, vegetables grow in the DIRT.  Dirt isn't gross.  But it does get between the layers of the leeks and will leave grit in your dish, so you'll want to wash these well.  The amount of dirt can vary from leek to leek.

Slice the leeks this way:


And then slice the other direction into "half moons."  Drop these into a bowl of cold water and swirl them around, making sure the layers separate and all the dirt gets dislodged.  It'll sink to the bottom, and you can scoop the leeks out (they float).  Dry them off, and they are ready to use!

How?  Start with potato leek soup.  Look under my soup recipe tab.  French vegetable soup is great with leeks, too.  They can be used in the place of onions in many recipes, but soups and stews are the best.  Put a bed of sliced leeks into the bottom of your pot for roast - just lay the roast on top of the leeks - there's your flavor. 

Rather than slicing the leeks into rounds, leave them in long pieces, rinse under cold water, and oven roast them with other vegetables like carrots and potatoes.  They also grill perfectly, as I mentioned above with scallions, but they take a bit longer.  Like all members of their family, they mellow and sweeten with cooking.

And now for the shallot.  Here it is!



Sometimes they come stuck together like above.  Two or three buddies, not wanting to part just yet.  Here's just one, which is what you'll usually need:


And here he is, peeled and ready to mince, just like an onion:



It should be sort of pinky-purple.

The best way to describe the flavor of a shallot?  It's like a yellow onion and a garlic got together and made a baby.  A sweet little baby!  It has a delicate onion-garlic flavor and as such, can be used in any dish you'd use both onion and garlic, or one or the other. 

Raw?  Mince it fine and add it to a basic vinaigrette salad dressing.  Toss it in your tuna salad.  Use it in pasta salad.  Stir it into some cooked rice or polenta.

Cooked?  There's no limit.  I would not waste the fine flavor in a chili or spaghetti sauce that has a lot of other strong, competing flavors.  But a chicken-mushroom-cream type of dish, a gravy, a light soup, or stir fry are all places that shallots can shine. 


There it is.  The Allium Family.  A very happy family indeed.  And here's the little recipe I promised.  I had all these things washed and trimmed and chopped and ready to go, and I couldn't waste them, right?

Allium Soup

1 yellow onion, chopped
1 large leek, white and light green parts, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
8 green onions, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup white wine
1 quart beef broth

In a soup pot, saute the onion, leek, garlic, shallot and green onions, seasoned with salt, pepper, sugar and thyme, very slowly over medium-low heat, until very soft and tender, about 30 minutes.  You don't want the vegetables to brown, but you want to them to be soft and almost "melted."  Increase the heat to medium and add the wine.  Simmer 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the beef broth and simmer for another few minutes.  Taste for seasoning.  Remove from heat, cool slightly, and puree in a blender or with an immersion blender.

Makes a lovely first course, simple lunch with crackers, or can be topped with a round of bread and some cheese and put under the broiler a la French Onion Soup.

4 comments:

  1. so I read somewhere that you can chop onions and then freeze them chopped. That way you can grab little bits at a time. do you ever do that?

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  2. Hey P!

    Yes, I have frozen chopped onion before, and chopped green pepper, too. Handy to drop into soup or chili. With the batches of food I cook, it seems like I always need a full onion, so I don't usually chop and freeze any extra. When I saw that mountain Julia chopped, I thought "oh boy, that oughta go in the freezer!"

    :-)

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  3. Green onions are also a "must" to make fried rice exactly right. :) Lovely post, as usual!

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  4. mmmm...we had French onion soup with baguette crisps and gruyere cheese just a week ago. It is by far my husband's favorite, and I have to tell you that the kids love it too (although I think its b/c of the cheese!) :D
    We could not make it without scallions either. I use them almost as much as I use regular old onions....but we like vidalias down here the best! ;D Great post! Hope you all are well! :D
    --S

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