"It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions," Julia Child wrote in her first cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking. "In one form or another, their flavor blends into almost everything in the meal except the dessert."
Onions are often taken for granted because they're so widely available and a basic flavor component of so many dishes.
In French cooking, mirepoix (mir-pwah), is the traditional combination of diced carrots, onions, celery and herbs used to flavor soups, stocks and sauces. (It was created in the 1700s by the personal cook of the Duke de Levis-Mirepoix, a French field marshal.) Both Creole and Cajun cuisine rely heavily on their "culinary holy trinity" of chopped green peppers, onions and celery, according to the "Food Lover's Companion," by Sharon Tyler Herbst. All over the world, the aroma of cooking onions can lure just about anyone to the dining table.
Here in Utah, onions get respect. In 2002, the Spanish sweet onion was named the state contemporary vegetable. Utah ranks 10th in the country for onion production. This year's harvest, which begins this month, is expected to yield almost 100 million pounds. (In comparison, the top-producing area, Idaho-eastern Oregon, harvests nearly 10 times as much.)
Onion farms take up about 1,800 acres in Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties, said Jerry Hartley, president of Utah Onions. He and his wife, Patty, have been in the onion business for 28 years. Besides growing 100 acres of onions in Syracuse (in Davis County) and near Corinne (in Box Elder County), they also market other growers' onions to wholesalers and food-service businesses.
"Davis and Weber acreage is shrinking every year," Hartley said. "Many have moved their onion operations to Box Elder County."
Americans are eating more onions, from 12.2 pounds per person in 1983 to 19 pounds in 2004. That may be partly due to more awareness of their health benefits. They contain quercetin, a type of antioxidant that may help prevent cancer, heart attacks and strokes, according to some studies. They are low in carbohydrates and contain no fat.
Lately, restaurants have popularized caramelized onions and deep-fried "onion blossom" appetizers, and onions figure prominently in Mexican and other ethnic cuisines.
Onion rings have made a comeback, appearing as a topping on fast-food burgers, such as Carl's Jr., and as a side order at Burger King.
"Some of that came out of the low-carb craze, as an alternative to french fries," said Kim Reddin, spokeswoman for the National Onion Association. "Restaurants also like onions because they have a fairly profitable margin."
But it would take more than a few onions rings to surpass Libya, which has the highest per-capita onion consumption of 66.8 pounds. (Pass the breath mints, please.)
Hartley has seen a huge jump in the popularity of red onions (which actually look purple). "I sell 10 times as many now as I did five years ago," he said. "Restaurants like them on their salad bars for their color. And a lot of pizza places are starting to use them."
Like artisan cheese, boutique chocolate and designer salt, onions are another kitchen staple that has gone trendy, with regional brand-names such as Vidalia Sweets, Walla Walla and Maui.
Classified by the industry as "fresh" onions, they have a higher water content, making them sweeter and milder than regular "storage" onions (which have layers of thick papery skin on the outside.) Due to their water content, fresh onions also bruise easily and don't las long. Most American fresh onions are in season from March to August. Then the storage onions are harvested, and they can be used until the following March, said Reddin.
Storage onions come in three colors: yellow, red and white. About 88 percent of the crop is devoted to yellow onions, according to the National Onion Association. They are full-flavored, turning a rich, dark brown when cooked and giving French onion soup its tangy sweet flavor.
White onions are traditional in Mexican cuisine. When sauteed, they turn golden with a sweet flavor. Red onions (which actually look purple) add color to fresh dishes such as salads.
Utah's state vegetable, the Spanish sweet onion, is a yellow onion grown in Utah as well as Idaho and Oregon.
"A lot of the onions in Utah grocery stores aren't Utah onions," said Hartley. "We grow a jumbo onion that's used mainly by the food industry, because if you're paying a guy in the back to peel onions, you want him peeling one jumbo onion instead of four small ones. Most grocery stores have a medium-size onion that comes from Washington."
Patty Hartley likes showcasing onions in a simple salad: layers of thinly sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and onions spritzed with olive oil, red wine vinegar and sprinkled with a little salt, pepper and garlic salt. "My kids love having a big bowl of it," she said.
But she doesn't recommend deep-frying your own onion blossoms. "By the time you go to all the work of the batter and hot oil, and then cleaning it up, I'd rather just go to a restaurant and buy one."
Reddin agrees. The NOA came up with a quicker, healthier alternative, where the onion is cut into a blossom shape, then baked or grilled in foil. "If you're entertaining, it's something that will impress your guests, but you can just put it on the grill and throw the foil away when you're done," said Reddin.
CREAMY ONION DIP
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
1 teaspoon paprika
1 cup regular or light sour cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
Large red onion (for onion bowl)
Heat oil in large skillet. Add onion and cook over medium heat, stirring often, 3 minutes, or until barely tender. Stir in paprika. Combine onion mixture and sour cream in medium bowl. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes 1 2/3 cups.
To serve in onion bowl: Cut off top third of a large red onion. Trim small edge off root end to make a flat support. Peel onion. Scoop out inner layers, leaving outer two layers intact. Spoon dip into hollow onion.
Nutrition information per serving: About 46 calories, 2 g protein, 7 g carb, 2 g fat, 30 percent calories from fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 1 g fiber. — National Onion Association
PASTA STUFFED ONIONS
4 large yellow onions
2 teaspoons olive oil
8 ounces capellini (angel hair) pasta
4 ounces bacon or thin-sliced pancetta, diced
2 tablespoons butter, unsalted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced
Wash onions, leaving outer skins on. Cut about 1/4 off the top at the blossom end. Place onions and tops cut side-down on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until soft inside. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente, about 4-5 minutes. Rinse in cool running water. Drain and toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Set aside. Cook bacon or pancetta until crisp. Drain and set aside. When onions have cooled, scoop out centers, leaving 2 layers of onion and the skins intact.
Julienne the onion centers and place in a heavy saucepan with butter, salt, pepper and thyme. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, until onions are soft and golden.
When ready to serve, re-heat onion shells and tops in a 350-degree oven, about 10 minutes. Heat caramelized onions with balsamic vinegar, chicken stock and pancetta. Adjust seasonings. Add pasta and heat through in sauce. Add parsley and toss well. Place pasta inside onion shells. Serve with tops slightly askew. Serves 4.
BEST EVER ONION RINGS
3 large onions (about 9 to 11 ounces each), peeled and trimmed
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon paprika
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup non-alcoholic or regular beer
Cut onions crosswise into 1/2-inch slices and pull apart into rings. (Refrigerate broken or end pieces for other uses.) Combine flour, paprika, salt and pepper in large bowl. Stir in beer, beating with wire whip until foam is gone.
Baked version: Toss onion rings in batter. Transfer to a plate, letting excess drip off as you transfer. Heat about 1 tablespoon oil in large 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place about half the onion rings in single layer in heated skillet, cook until browned, turning once, about 1 1/2 minutes on each side. Repeat with remaining onions. Transfer to ungreased shallow baking pans or cookie sheets, arranging in single layer. Bake at 425 degrees for 6 minutes, or until crisp. Makes 6 servings.
Deep-fried version: Heat at least 2 inches oil in deep-fryer for 5 to 10 minutes, or according to fryer directions. (If fryer has a temperature adjustment, set it at 375 degrees and heat until the light goes out.) Drop batter-coated onion rings into hot oil (about 10 to 20 at a time). Fry 2 to 4 minutes or until crisp. Drain on paper towels before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Variation: Add 2 teaspoons dried thyme, chili powder and ground cumin to batter. After baking or frying, sprinkle crispy rings with additional chili powder, ground cumin or bottled pepper blends, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving:
Baked version: 155 calories 4 g protein, 30 g carb, 3 g fat, 15 percent calories from fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Deep-fried version: About 242 calories, 4 g protein., 29 g carb, 13 g fat, 46 percent calories from fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
3 pounds yellow onions (6 to 9 medium onions)
Cooking spray, as needed
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
Salt and pepper, to taste
Halve and slice onions. Coat 12-inch skillet with cooking spray. Over medium heat, cook onions in oil for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until soft and golden. Stir in thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Serve warm or cover and chill for up to 5 days. Makes 12 servings.
Wilted spinach salad: Toss crisp fresh spinach leaves with hot caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Drizzle with warmed vinaigrette dressing and toss well.
Enchilada stack: Stack corn tortillas with layers of black or pinto beans, diced bell pepper, salsa, grated sharp cheddar cheese and caramelized onions. Sprinkle with cheese and bake until hot and melted.
Smothered sea bass: Serve poached sea bass or other firm white fish on a bed of caramelized onions.
Royal stuffed bakers: Spoon caramelized onions into baked potatoes instead of the usual butter and sour cream. Sprinkle black pepper over top.
Steak and onions: Serve with grilled steak or portobello mushrooms.
Nutrition information per serving: About 61 calories, 1 g protein, 10 g carb, 2 g fat, 29 percent calories from fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
CLASSIC ONION SOUP
4 large yellow onions (about 9 to 11 ounces each), sliced
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 tablespoon sugar
2 quarts reduced sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup brandy (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 baguette French bread, sliced, toasted
Grated Romano cheese
Melt butter in large 4-quart saucepan. Add onions and cook over medium heat 12 minutes, or until tender and golden. Stir often. Add sugar and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add broth, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 12 minutes. If desired, add brandy and cook 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, ladle soup into bowl and float toast on soup. Sprinkle with cheese. Serves 6.
Nutrition Information per serving: About 362 calories, 16 g protein, 30 g carb, 17 g fat, 42 percent calories from fat, 51 mg cholesterol, 1,100 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
HERB-BAKED ONION BLOOM
This is an easier, healthier approach to the deep-fried onion blossom restaurant appetizer.
1 large onion (3-3 1/2 inches wide)
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
Salt and pepper, to taste
Parsley or paprika, if desired
Cut about 1/2-inch off top of onion and peel. Cut onion into 12 to 16 vertical wedges, leaving root base intact. Set bloomed onion on 14-by-10-inch piece of foil. Top onion with butter, thyme or oregano, rosemary and salt and pepper, to taste. Wrap foil around seasoned bloom and pinch edges together tightly. Place wrapped onion upright on pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, or until tender but "petals" still have body and stand upright. If desired, sprinkle with minced parsley or paprika. Serves 1.
Nutrition Information per serving: About 75 calories, 1 g protein, 10 g carb, 4 g fat, 45 percent calories from fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
BISTRO POTATO SALAD WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS
2 medium yellow onions, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
Boiling salted water
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill leaves or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
Saute onions in olive oil in large skillet over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes until golden. Season with salt and pepper to taste, cover and chill. Boil potatoes 20 to 35 minutes or until fork tender but not mushy. Drain and chill in covered container.
Combine mayonnaise with dill leaves, mustard, lemon juice and sugar. Slice chilled potatoes and brush a thin glaze of the dilled mayonnaise over tops. To arrange salad, spoon onions onto plate, spreading into 10 to 12-inch round.
Make overlapping circles of glazed sliced potatoes over onions. Spoon some of the dilled mayonnaise into center, and pass remainder in a small bowl. Serves 6.
Nutrition Information per serving: About 276 calories, 4 g protein, 35 g carb, 15 g fat, 46 percent calories from fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 287 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.
— All recipes from the National Onion Association