Bring on the Onions

The onions are everywhere. They are sold in every farmers market, mini mart, grocery stores and supermarkets the world over and is used in every home around the world for a number of things.

Onions are native to Asia and the Middle East and have been cultivated for over five thousand years. Onions were highly regarded by the Egyptians. Not only did they use them as currency to pay the workers who built the pyramids, but they also placed them in the tombs of kings, such as Tutankhamen, so that they could carry these gifts bestowed with spiritual significance with them to the afterlife. Onions have been revered throughout time not only for their culinary use, but also for their therapeutic properties. As early as the 6th century, onions were used as a medicine in India. While they were popular with the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were oftentimes dressed with extra seasonings since many people did not find them spicy enough. Yet, it was their pungency that made onions popular among poor people throughout the world who could freely use this inexpensive vegetable to spark up their meals. Onions were an indispensable vegetable in the cuisines of many European countries during the Middle Ages and later even served as a classic healthy breakfast food. Christopher Columbus brought onions to the West Indies; their cultivation spread from there throughout the Western Hemisphere. Today China, India, the United States, Russian, and Spain are among the leading producers of onions.

In the Garden

Onions can be planted as soon as the garden can be tilled in the spring, usually late March or early April in prime regions for producing onions. Good fertility, adequate soil moisture and cool temperatures aid development.

To produce green onions, plant the larger sets 1 _ inches deep and close enough to touch one another (green onions are harvested before crowding becomes a problem). To produce dry onions, plant the smaller sets 1 inch deep, with 2 to 4 inches between sets. Allow 12 to 18 inches between rows. If sets are 2 inches apart, harvest every other plant as green onions so that bulb development of the remaining sets is not impeded by neighboring plants.

Onions from Transplants

Plant in fertile soil in early spring. Space the plants 4 to 5 inches apart in the row to produce large-sized bulbs (closer spacing significantly decreases bulb size) or space 2 to 2 _ inches apart and harvest every other plant as a green onion. Allow 12 to 18 inches between rows or space onions 6 to 8 inches apart in all directions in beds. Set the transplants 1 to 1 _ inches deep and apply 1 cup per plant of a starter-fertilizer solution.

Keep onions free from weeds by shallow cultivation and hoeing. To develop long, white stems for green onions, slightly hill the row by pulling the loose soil toward the onions with a hoe when the tops are 4 inches tall. Do not hill onions that are to be used as dry onions. Hilling may cause the necks of the stored bulb to rot.

Onions from Transplants

Weeds and grass compete with the onion plants for nutrients and moisture during the growing season. Remove all weeds and grass by diligent and repeated shallow cultivation and hoeing. Side-dressing with fertilizer may be necessary.

Pull green onions anytime after the tops are 6 inches tall. Green onions become stronger in flavor with age and increasing size. They may be used for cooking when they are too strong to eat raw. Though leaves are traditionally discarded, all parts above the roots are edible.

Remove any plants that have formed flower stalks and use immediately. They do not produce good bulbs for dry storage. Harvest in late July or early August, when most of the tops have fallen over. Allow the plants to mature and the tops to fall over naturally. Breaking over the tops early interrupts growth, causing smaller bulbs that do not keep as well in storage.

Pull the mature onions in the morning and allow the bulbs to air dry in the garden until late afternoon. On especially hot, bright, sunny days, the bulb may sunburn. On days when this is likely, remove onions to a shaded location and allow them to dry thoroughly. Then, before evening dew falls, place them under dry shelter on elevated slats or screens or hang them in small bunches. Tops may be braided or tied with string before hanging. Full air circulation for 2 to 3 weeks is necessary for complete drying and curing. Keep the dry wrapper scales as intact as possible on the bulbs, as they enhance the keeping ability.

After the bulbs dry, cut the tops 1 _ to 2 inches long (at or above the narrow spot where the stem bent over), and place the bulb in dry storage with good air circulation. Do not try to store bulbs that are bruised, cut or diseased, or those with green tops or thick necks. Store under cool, dry conditions. Dry onions may keep until late winter, but check them regularly and use or discard those that begin to soften or rot.

In the Kitchen

Why do onions make you cry? When you cut into an onion, the cell walls are damaged releasing a sulfur compound called propanethial-S-oxide which floats into the air. This compound is converted to sulfuric acid when it comes in contact with water which is why it stings your eyes. Chilling inactivates the propanethial-S-oxide so it does not float into the air. Thus, no tears.

To keep eyes dry when chopping onions, try chilling peeled onions in the refrigerator before chopping. To get the onion smell off your hands, rub with lemon juice or vinegar. To freshen onion breath, chew a little parsley or a coffee bean.

There is no successful way to preserve scallions and green onions for more than a few days. However, mature onions can be dried and hung in mesh bags or braided together and stored in a cool (50 to 60 degrees) for several months.

Some favourite onion recipes are:

  • Onion and Celery Seed Relish
  • Baked Onion Casserole
  • French Onion Soup
  • and many more.

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