The Magic Bulbs: Onions

Know your onions! I do, having been exposed to its pungency in various guises, some of which appear in this piece. Onion tart, anyone?


It is hard to say when the onion came into being. They were grown in Ancient Egypt, this much we know and eventually arrived in Rome and became known as the word onion (from the Latin word Unio, which means large pearl or one). In Middle English, it became Unyon. And onions are really good to us for a variety of reasons.
Having searched the vast cyber spaces for the origins of the bulb, onions probably originated in Central Asia and slowly made their way into Egypt some 3,200 years ago. From Mesopotamia there is evidence of cultivation in Sumer at the end of the third millenium B.C. This, together with the records from Egypt, indicates that the initial domestication began much earlier. The Romans cultivated onions in special gardens (cepinae) which had specialized gardeners (ceparii) I guess the expression “know your onions” might have come from a Roman senator during question time….ok, I’m kidding.


The good news: onions contain flavonoids such as quercetin, substances that help slow down the aging process of immune system. Also great for hangovers, my recipe for the mighty headache below. The entire onion family, including red onions, garlic, shallots and leeks also contain vitamin C, selenium and sulphurous substances. Red onions (my favorite) are amazingly rich in quercetin which acts as an expectorant in infections of the upper respiratory tract. Onions reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and prevent the formation of blood clots (in thrombosis, heart attacks and stroke). They also help to fight cancer according to many health sites. Check out the chart below for its nutrients.


The bad news: well, anyone who has eaten a load of fried onions (or raw) can attest to its “windy” consequences. Be that as it may, a man in Turkey, I have read a couple of years ago, lived to 120 years on a diet of raw onions, yogurt and occasional dark bread & olives.

A few words on onion types: green onions are onions that are harvested while their shoots are still young and green. You can use them for toppings on salads, baked potatoes, soup, and a wide variety of other culinary uses. The green onion and the scallion are typically used interchangeably both in reference to the onion itself and in cooking, but they are actually two different varieties of green onions (sic).
Dry onions can be red, white, or yellow in color. They are harvested once the shoots have died and the onions are left with a paper-like covering encasing the fleshy vegetable. Spring/summer onions are the sweeter varieties, but do not store well like fall/winter varieties. The most common variety of sweet onion is the Vidalia onion, which is named for their growing location in Georgia. Another type that we use in vast amounts in traditional French cuisine is the shallot, not exactly an onion but from the same Allium family. And nature provides us with yet another type, the wild onion. Its flowers are not only gorgeous but also edible. See pic below.


So you have lots of onions in your larder and you want to use them. How about an onion tart? We do one called Pissaladière in Provence and top it with anchovies and black olives but if you don’t like either just stick to the onions, either way it’s delicious and can be eaten hot or cold anytime.

For 6 persons you need:

3 tsp (15ml) virgin olive oil, 4 red (or yellow) onions, thinly sliced,
4 garlic cloves, crushed, 1 pound Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeds removed, chopped, 2 tbsp tomato paste, 1 pinch brown sugar, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, olives and anchovies to taste and let’s not forget, a handful of fresh basil leaves.

For the pastry:

1/4 pound plain flour, 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan (Gruyere is just as good) 4 tbsp virgin olive oil, pinch of salt.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat, add onion and cook for 5 minutes or until softened. Add garlic, tomato, paste and basil, then cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes or until reduced and thick. Add sugar and vinegar, then set aside to cool.

While this is cooking make the pastry: sift the flour into a large bowl with 1 teaspoon of salt, then add the Parmesan or preferred cheese (Pecorino from Italy is also sensational in this dish). This is a neat trick to make garlic oil: pour the oil in a saucepan, add the garlic cloves and heat over low heat for 1 minute. Cool slightly. Strain oil into flour, discarding garlic (or eat it!) then add 2-3 tablespoons cold water. Combine first with a fork and then with your hands to form a smooth dough. Cover with plastic wrap and rest for 15 minutes in fridge. Roll out on a lightly floured surface and use to line your tart or flan dish.
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Have you ever baked blind? Well, here’s your opportunity: blind bake pastry by filling the dish with baking paper, and baking beans or pastry weights (I use garbanzo beans or plain white beans). Bake for 10 minutes, then remove paper and beans and bake for 5 minutes or until crisp and golden. Voila! It’s baked. All you need to do is to fill the pastry shell with the stewed onion/tomato mix and you’re done.

Another great way of using surplus onions is to do a condiment that can be used with just about any dish or sandwich: the onion marmalade. Easy peasy. You need a really good balsamic vinegar with this and a handful of candied orange rinds. You can candy your own (in the preceding link) or you can buy it from any supermarket.

All you need to do is to peel a whole lot of onions, say 4 pounds, chop them finely (use goggles if you don’t want to cry), and in a large pot pour some olive oil, add the onions, 4 tbsp of tomato paste, 8 ounces of brown sugar and half a pint of balsamic vinegar. Stew slowly for 1 hour then add a handful of the finely chopped candied orange peels and stew over the lowest flame for another hour, occasionally stirring and adding a little water if too sticky. You should have a nicely done marmalade, particularly excellent with sausages, any kind of sausages.


French onion soup anyone? Did you think I was going to write a diary about onions without mentioning my hot favorite? Minimum preparation, no fuss and a great starter. Very healthy as well. You will need to use the beef stock for that soup (vegetable stock for vegetarians of course). And for say, 6 people, allow 2 pounds of brown onions, 6 garlic cloves, 100 grams of butter (roughly 8 ounces), half a liter (1 pint) of good red wine, a dash of tomato paste, a tablespoon of plain flour, 200 grams of freshly grated Gruyère cheese, and 2 or 3 large croutons per person. Cut up the onions finely. In a skillet melt the butter and add the onions, stirring constantly till caramelized. Add the flour and the finely chopped garlic, the tomato paste and the wine, then 2 pints of the beef stock. Do not bring to the boil, just simmer along nicely for one hour, it should thicken lightly. Taste for salt & pepper. Have the croutons made from baguette ready. Heat up the grill/broiler. In earthenware soup bowls pour the soup almost to the top, place the croutons and top them with the Gruyere cheese. To serve the onion soup gratiné, place under a preheated broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 3 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling and serve. Goes extremely well with a glass of Beaujolais. Or the entire bottle!


Although chopping onions will make you cry they also improve your memory, scientists discovered. It fits neatly into my own theory that vast amounts of oxygen reaches the brain when it needs it most: when you are suffering a nasty hangover. So here’s my “surething” hangover recipe, not for the faint-hearted: you need a juicer for this one, and a sofa nearby. Juice a whole onion, add 2 small tomatoes and a whole chili (but not a Habanero or you will see red), add the juice of 1 lemon, mix well and drink up. I guarantee you that it will disappear within 15 minutes. Works on me.

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