TODAY'S column pays homage to one of the unsung heroes of the vegetable world. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, onions are rarely given the credit they deserve as one of the world's most valued ingredients.
And although they are available year-round in almost every country in the world, China certainly included, they are still a vegetable and as with many of their peers, spring heralds the newest and sweetest of the bunch.
It is easy to see why the humble onion gets overlooked among the veritable united nations that constitute springtime bounty. Between foraged wild greens, edible flowers and countless baby vegetables that grace Michelin-starred plates around the globe, there seem to be countless ingredients that are far more glamorous and exciting to work with.
Asparagus, with all its colorful incarnations and sizes, warrants worldwide festivals and tasting menus. Fava beans, another spring favorite, span multiple cultures, making appearances on tables in Italy, China, France and the US.
None, however, has the adaptability and potential that the onion and its assorted family brings to the table. Onions and its kin play a vital role in every major cuisine I can think of. Between leeks, shallots, scallions and various other more obscure offshoots of the allium family there is truly an onion for every occasion.
All too often onions are simply added into stocks or cooked as a foundation ingredient, contributing sweetness and depth to sauces without interfering with the star ingredient. This is an unfortunate turn of events as the allium family has a long, storied past with humankind.
Onions grow hardily in nearly any soil type and if stored properly they can keep for months at a time with little decline in quality, a few of the many reasons that onions are theorized to be one of the first domesticated vegetables. Ancient Egyptians worshipped them, placing them in tombs with their honored fallen, a gift to bring with them into the afterlife.
Descriptions of onions can be found in numerous historical cultures, from the Middle East to the Native American. They've long been touted for assorted medical properties, with some cultures even claiming onions as an aphrodisiac and a viable treatment for impotence.
While most people these days would argue the case against consuming copious amounts of onion prior to any sort of amorous engagement, the truth remains that they are delicious in nearly every other context.
Raw, they provide a juicy, spicy, pungent kick and crunch, a perfect counterpart to meaty dishes and creamier sauces. Cooked, the onion punch will mellow and the flavor becomes incredibly sweet and round, so delicious that it warrants its very own namesake soup.
Quite possibly my favorite preparation for onions, though, is the pickle. In my mind a well-constructed pickled onion highlights all of an onion's best assets. At once crunchy and sweet, pungent but controlled, the pickled onion has a place at any table at any time.
Prime onions should be picked with the same criteria one would apply to any other vegetable. You're looking for tight shiny skin, free of any soft spots or blemishes. The onion should feel firm and heavy for its size, this mean the onion still has a lot of moisture inside. If not used immediately, most onions can be stored comfortably at room temperature, preferably away from light.
1kg medium onions (white, yellow, or red are all fine)
750ml white vinegar
2 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 bay leaf
1. Using a very sharp knife or a mandoline, slice onions into thin rounds and place in a glass or plastic container. You're looking for rings about 2-3mm in thickness. The sharper your knife the less you will cry. You can also soak peeled onions in cold water for 30 minutes before slicing to reduce the tear-inducing properties as well.
2. Bring all the remaining ingredients to a boil in a non-reactive pot (no aluminum please!).
3. Pour boiling liquid over the onions and place a few plates on top of the onion mass to keep everything submerged. Let the onions cool completely to room temperature before covering and placing in the refrigerator.
4. Let pickle at least 24 hours before consuming, pickles will keep in the fridge for 3-4 weeks easily though I truly doubt they will last that long. Enjoy pickles with cheese, cured meats, in salads, in sandwiches, alongside roasted meats or chopped up finely in a sauce.
The best part about this recipe and onions overall is the endless possibilities that they offer. Want to make curried onions? Throw some curry powder into the solution. Want to give your pickles a citrus punch? Feel free to add some lemon or orange zest into the mix. The same for fresh herbs, garlic, and nearly any other dried spice; nearly all can be married with your pickling solution to create your very own custom-pickled onions.
Of course, if you're not vinegar-inclined, you can still do delicious amazing things with onions. They're wonderful roasted lovingly over low heat until the sugars caramelize and they become meltingly tender, or charred quickly over a wood fire for a little spice and crunch; the sky truly is the limit with these multi-layered jewels of the pantry.