The Elegance and Perfection of the Onion
One of the world’s most perfect foods, the onion family includes garlic, chives, leeks, shallots and scallions not to mention the many varieties available under its own name. Ancient Sumerians cultivated onions more than three thousand years ago; ancient Egyptians made offerings of onions to their pantheon of gods. All in all, there are more than four hundred species of Allium today. The following article pays homage to the onion while discussing its origins, varieties, cultivation, herbal properties, and its uses in cookery and folk medicine.
The history of the onion is rich. Onions have been found buried with Egyptian mummies and are described in many early records as having sacred properties. It appears that their link with medicine stretches almost as far back as their relationship with food. In any case, Egyptians greatly venerated the onion and associated them with their gods. Ancient Druids of England also held divine beliefs regarding onions.
In Europe’s area of Bohemia onions were once devices by which fortunes were told. In China and Arabia, onions, as well as garlic and chives, were used to ward off the Evil Eye or to prevent witchcraft. In folklore, garlic enjoys its legendary status as a vampire-repellant. Among farmers who cultivated onions, it was believed that a thin-coated onion foretold of a mild winter and a thickly coated onion meant a severe season.
Today, despite the many different varieties of onion worldwide, those available from our own gardens and local markets include the: Common Onion, Garlic, Welsh Onion, Chives, Chinese Chives, Leek, Cipolle (mild-flavored gold onion), Egyptian Onion, White Bermuda onion, Spanish or Fiesta Onion, Oso Sweet, Red Southport, Vidalia, Shallots, Walla Walla (large and fragrant onion), Texas Sweet, Wonder of Pompeii (good for boiling) and Yellow Sweet Spanish. However, nearly each season finds onion produce to include various hybrids.
Growing your own onions in the garden is not difficult given the wide range of conditions they can tolerate. They do best in a temperate climate with adequate moisture and should thrive in a well-composted soil that is well-drained. A fertilizer rich in phosphorus and potassium is strongly recommended. Since a light freeze isn’t likely to damage your onions, they may be planted in early spring is the soil is dry enough. Green onions can actually be planted anytime throughout the growing season. They should be planted at a shallow depth. Plan to water them during dry spurts and be sure to mulch.
While green onions can be harvested even while they are young and used in cooking, your dry bulb onions are usually mature enough to be harvested by the end of August or in early September. They should be pulled and left in shade to dry for about three weeks. Garlic does not always thrive in northern climates, but it may be grown under the same conditions as common onions.
Some onion plants are actually grown for their attractiveness and are considered to be ornamentals. Many of these are grown for their bright colors and sweet fragrance; these ornamental Allium plants do not emit an onion scent unless their leaves are crushed. These ornamentals are great for cuttings because they last so long.
Onions are an excellent source of vitamins A, B and C and are also rich in the elements Calcium and Potassium. It’s no surprise that they have a long tradition in the culinary realm and are used by humble kitchen cooks and elegant gourmet chefs alike. From boiled onions and onion sauce to seven-onion or French onion soup, onions may be served alone, but are most frequently used in soups, stews, sauces and to flavor a vast array of dishes that include seafood, beef and poultry.
Frankly, it would be difficult to find a recipe where an onion or one of its relatives might not tastily blend in. And where would Italian food be without its garlic?! What good is a burger without onion rings? It may be useful to know that you can avoid many tears while chopping onions by first chilling them. It get that onion odor off your skin when you are finished cooking, try the juice of fresh lemons.
The medicinal properties of onions are made much of by herbal medicine and traditional folk medicine practitioners. While one should always consult a doctor when serious illness ensues, the following is a compendium of ailments that onions may actually help aid:
For bronchitis, apply a flannel bag that contains the pulp of a large onion to the chest for four-hour intervals.
One can avoid inebriation by eating several raw leeks.
For painful boils, apply a boiled or roasted onion and the pain should diminish.
Onions are thought to help regulate the colon by increasing digestion activity.
For a common cold, drink a hearty cup of onion tea.
Of course, there are many more uses for the onion and its relatives in alternative medicine practices which only adds to the onion’s large and varied repertoire of uses. Its perfection increases. It is a much-loved vegetable.