The onion and its satin wrappings is among the most beautiful of vegetables and is the only one that represents the essence of things. It can be said to have a soul, wrote the American essayist Charles Dudley Warner, a friend of Mark Twain.
I’ve spent the better part of today with onions. I pulled the last of this year’s crop them from the garden and hung them to dry. I trimmed the dry stems and roots from more than a bushel of the first-harvested bulbs that have cured on racks for several weeks. Stored in old laundry baskets, the varieties I grow will keep for almost a year in our unheated cellar.
I love working with onions, sowing flats of the gritty black seeds under lights in February, transplanting the tiny plants in the cool soil of late April, tending them as they grow layer by layer. I enjoy watching them dry on all manner of makeshift racks, including an old iron bedspring, an upright laundry rack scrounged from the dump, and a set of shop shelves temporarily expropriated for the purpose.
The onion is the truffle of the poor
So opined French food writer Robert Coutine. Onions add savor to almost any dish, and I enjoy finding new ways to cook with them. We eat onions almost every day, often starting with sauteed onions in our breakfast omelette. We slice them into salads or sandwiches for lunch, and add them to dinner dishes sauteed, caramelized, baked, boiled, or roasted. We stuff them and use them in stuffings. We add them generously to sauces and salsas.
Keep onions on hand
Even if you don’t have a garden, you should keep onions handy. They’re cheap and versatile, they store well, they’re available year-round in any supermarket, and they’re good for you.
Onions contain a wealth of phytocompounds with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. Eating onions help may prevent gastric ulcers, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. Eating onions demonstrably increases bone density. It may help improve athletic endurance, prevent cataracts and some cancers, and prevent or heal respiratory inflammations. But just how much and in what form to eat your onions (raw, cooked, dried, in extract form) to exert these beneficial effects remains unclear.
An onion full of disease-fighting phytocompounds will likely bring tears when you cut it. A U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher once told me that the onions that produce the most tears contain the highest concentration of disease-fighting phytochemicals. Retailers sell “onion goggles” to prevent the eye irritation, but we’ve found that a pair of cheap, wraparound safety goggles works pretty well.
Onion skins themselves are especially rich in the plant compound quercetin, currently being studied as a therapeutic agent forpreventing and/or treating many diseases and conditions. A strong infusion of red or yellow onion skins not only makes a beautiful fabric dye, but has a reputation as a superior hair-conditioning rinse.
Onions themselves have a reputation as odor-eaters. A cut onion or a bowl of sliced onions in water can help reduce the smells of mold and mildew, fresh paint, smoke and burned food, and others.
You can get the smell of onions (or anything else) off your hands by rubbing them over a stainless-steel faucet or some other stainless object.
I will not move my army without onions!
So exclaimed General Ulysses S. Grant. Julia Child went further: It's hard to imagine civilization without onions, she said.
Finally, the multi-layered onion, hiding its delicate growing tip at the very center, has proven irresistible as a figure of speech since the dawn of literature. Here’s one:
Life is like an onion.
You peel it off one layer at a time;
And sometimes you weep. ~ Carl Sandburg
Learn more—a lot more—about onions from the National Onion Association
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.