Onion Trivia and Historical Uses

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It has been told that the first United States President, George Washington, said: “The onion is the most favorite food that grows.”

The onion pictureLong before George promoted onions, the Egyptians considered onions an object to be worshipped believing the onion symbolized eternity (circle within a circle anatomy of the onion). Many Pharaohs who died were buried with onions, both fresh onions as well as onions crafted in gold. Egyptians believe the strong onion scent (magical powers) would prompt the dead to breathe again because of onions’ strong antiseptic qualities.

 Here’s some interesting Onion Trivia:

  • Onions have been cultivated for at least 5,000 years and have even been credited with making hair grow on bald heads to giving valor to the troops of Alexander the Great.
  • Onions gave Chicago its name. Onions were the vegetable that the Chippewa Indians found growing at the site of the modern-day city, Chicago. The Indians called them “she-gau-ga-winshe”.
  • The name onion comes from the Latin, “unio” via the French “oignon” and the English “unyun.” Interestingly enough, the onion plant belongs to the same family as the narcissus. (copied from Produce Oasis website).
  • Athletes in ancient Greece ate large quantities of onion because they believed it would lighten the balance of blood and increase their stamina. Roman gladiators used onion as a rub to help firm up their muscles.I Love Onions shirt

smiling onion picPlease, remember to keep onions away from your pets.

LONG LIVE THE ONION!

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Shallots

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Shallots are one of the smallest varieties of the onion family. They have a pear-shaped bulb that separates into cloves. The shallot shallots - groupitself has a thin coppery-brown outer skin that is dry. The flesh portion is purplish white, and its flavor is between a sweet onion and garlic. Its flavor is subtle yet distinct but not equaled to the flavor of an onion. These are onions that won’t make you cry.

Even with its origin in the Central Asian region, they are cultivated today in all continents and serve as a major commercial crop.

Fresh shallots are readily available during spring and early summer season and have more anti-oxidants, minerals, and shallots picvitamins than most onions. They are definitely a rich source of flavonoid antioxidants, further aiding antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal activities, helping reduce blood pressure, and their phytochemical compounds have anti-diabetic properties as well. Shallots are rich in minerals, in electrolytes, iron, calcium, copper, potassium, and phosphorus. Since man was created from the dirt, is it any surprise that these freshly grown vegetables contain life-giving nutrition that our bodies need? Not only are they good for you, they add an enhancement to your food dishes. Shallots are one of the common ingredients in many pasta dishes, pizza, noodles, and some stuffings mixtures. Add some shallots to your healthy eating.

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Leeks

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Leeks resemble large green onions, but they are milder and sweeter and when chopped they don’t cause your eyes to tear. In leek picits raw state, this vegetable is firm and crunchy. The edible portion of the leek is the white base of the leaves, above the roots and stem base. When cooking with leeks, the dark green portion is usually discarded because of its tough texture yet is more flavorful. Leeks are often added to stock and can be sautéed (they are included in both potato and leek soup and vichyssoise). When using fresh leeks, clean and wash thoroughly.

Since they belong to the same genus as onions and garlic, in the allium vegetables, they contain the same healthy vitamins and minerals. They also have important amounts of the flavonoid kaempferol which has been shown to help protect blood vessel lining from damage.

Leeks as well as onions were part of the Egyptian diet and archaeological sites indicate carvings and drawings referencing dried leeks. Emperor Nero is said to have consumed leeks in soup or in oil because he believed it was beneficial to the quality of his voice. It was his favorite vegetable. welsh guard insigniaThere is also Biblical reference in Numbers 11 where the Israelites enjoyed leeks, onions, and garlic.

Even today the leek has been given a prominent position joined with the daffodil as the cap badge for the Welsh Guards in Wales.

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Don’t Cry Over Onions

 

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You’ve probably had this experience like the rest of us. You’re preparing a meal, adding chopped onions to the pan or incorporating them into a meat dish or fixing fresh salsa, and suddenly you’re assaulted with strong irritation to your eyes. You discovered the consequences of chopping fresh onions: tearing and burning eyes.

Why do onions make you cry?

The main cause of the eye irritation is due to the breakdown of amino acid sulfoxides that generate sulfenic acids. So, once you cut an onion and break the cells, you released these dangerous onion vapor enzymes. What had been separate prior to cutting has now been released and mix with sulfenic acids producing a volatile sulfur compound.

It is this gas compound that mixes with the water in your eyes forming sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid is what burns and stimulates your eyes to release more tears to wash away the irritant. Best way to avoid the tears when using onions is to peel them underwater. And if not using gloves or peeling/cutting them under water, you’ll find that your hands/fingers will have an onion odor. Using lemon juice rubbed on your hands will aid in eliminating the onion smell.

Don’t let the potential of eye irritation keep you from enjoying the health benefits of onions.

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Green Onions

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Look in any produce section at the store for onions and you’ll find a variety of onions in different shapes and colors. The Green onion may be misleading but the actual onion bulb is white. So why are they called ‘green’ onions?

Green onions are harvested while in the early stages of growth before a prominent bulb has formed and Green onionswhile the tops are still green…thus the name green onion. In some areas you’ll find them called spring onions because they are only available during the spring but they are often confused with scallions. Green onions have a mellow flavored compared to a regular onion. 

You will always see Green onions sold in a bunch. Both the small bulb and leaves are edible, either raw or cooked. As general rule, the white portion is usually cooked, grilled, roasted or marinated whereas the green part is used as a garnish for salads, soups, and other dishes.

Even though these particular onions are smaller green onions still contain many vitamins and minerals for your body’s well-being. They are very rich in Vitamin K and C which help develop and maintain strong bones, as well as Vitamin A to aid in healthy vision, potassium (a crucial mineral for blood pressure control) and antioxidants just to name a few benefits. Add them chopped in salads, other meat dishes, sauces and enjoy!

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White Onions

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As its name suggests, the white onion is white—both the white onions pictranslucent white flesh inside and the white skin outside. Many feel that this onion is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world. Its’ history goes back thousands of years, growing in the Middle East and India and later transported to Europe and North America by explorers and traders.

Grown primarily for its bulbous root, the white onion is a vegetable enjoyed it in a variety of food dishes. It is most commonly used onion in cooking because of its potent flavor and its sweet/sour taste. This onion particularly compliments other flavors well, thus enhancing its addition to any food dish. It’s interesting that when you sauté a white onion, it turns brown but adds a lot of flavor to chopped white onionsyour dish.

White onions are available year-round. Choose fresh ones that are firm, without blemishes or mold spots, and have even-colored skin. It is best to store onions in a dry, dark, ventilated area and not in the refrigerator. They are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Not only are they a good source of fiber, Vitamin B6, folate, potassium and manganese, but they are also a great source of Vitamin C.

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State Onions, Sweet Onions

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There are various states in the US who have ‘famous’ onions beside Hawaii (Maui onion). Texas, the state of Washington, and Georgia provide more varieties for us to enjoy. There are more than 20 states that actually grow various types of onion.

The Supersweet Onion of Texas is a very mild and crunchy super sweet onion - texasonion. It is sweet, yet with a delicate flavor, and can weigh a pound and measure up to four inches in diameter. Originally developed by a horticulture professor at Texas A&M (Dr. Leonard Pike), is it famous for being a ‘tear-free’ onion since it is low in pyruvate, the chemical for inciting tears.

walla walla onionsAnother “sweet” onion is the Walla Walla Onion, and as its name suggests, it was named for where it grows: Walla Walla County, Washington, and developed by a French soldier settling in that county around 1900. Through reseeding of a sweet onion from Corsica, Peter Pieri came up with the round-shaped, jumbo size sweet onion with white flesh.

One more “sweet” onion is from my state, Georgia. vadalia onion growingIt’s the Vidalia Onion, and grown in Vidalia, Georgia. Mose Coleman is the person credited with first growing these sweet onions in the early 1930’s. Vidalia’s are large white onions with a thin outer skin and enjoyed in salads, onion soup, or other dishes where you want a sweet onion flavor without the pungent taste.

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Maui Onion

 

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You can probably guess the origin of this onion…Maui, Hawaii. This onion is sweet andMaui onions in bag juicy with golden-yellow skin but is only available from April to June. This variety of sweet onion lacks the sulfur which is responsible for the usual strong odor and sharp taste associated with most onionsTheir shape is more unique than other onions because they look like flattened globes and can weigh anywhere from 1/2 pound to 3/4 pound.

The State of Hawaii promotes their famous onion and actually claims it is as good if not better than the Vidalia onion from Georgia. Hawaiian farmers claim if the onion isn’t grown on Maui then it isn’t a true Maui onion. This is probably true and mainly because of the rich volcanic soil that dominates the landscape of Maui, but of course the warm weather in Maui also plays into creating a delicious onion; however, they are also now grown in Texas.

Maui onionsThere are numerous ways to use and enjoy these flavorful onions from slicing them thinly for salads, sandwiches, eating them raw as well as cooking or grilling them. And let’s not forget them as onion rings. Try some this Spring. Maui Onions, we salute you!

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Tracing Onion Roots

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There are many onion varieties too numerous to detail. Besides the health benefits of the “onion”, the history associated with this unique food is interesting.

How has the onion enriched our lives? The cultivated onion was introduced by Christopher Columbus in North America on his 1492 expedition, but he found that there was a strain of wild onions already growing onions growing-2through North America. Native Americans used them in a variety of ways, from cooking with them, eating them raw, and as seasoning in their food dishes. They also used them as poultices (made by grinding dried onion to a fine powder and mixing with oil and applying it to the specified area of the body). They were also used as an ingredient in dyes by Native Americans.

It was during 1648 that the Colonists planted bulb onions they brought from England on the Mayflower as soon as the land was cleared and ready for onions growingplanting the crop. The rest they say is history…onion history over the centuries. From Bible times to Pliny the Elder responsible for cataloguing Roman belief that the onion would cure vision, heal mouth sores, toothaches, and even lumbago, to the first Roman cookbooks (8th or 9th centuries), using them in WWII as an antiseptic, to the herbalists today proclaiming the onion as a natural preventative healer. Here’s to the onion!

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Red Onions

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red onions - picThe Red onion is classified as a spring/summer variety because of its thin protective layer whereas storage onions have multiple protective layers allowing them greater time to be stored and less opportunity for bruising. Red onions are “red” but actually have a burgundy colored, paper sheath protecting the ruby and white ringed flesh. Each layer surface contains anthocyanins – chemicals giving the onion its red color. (You’ll also find them in other fruits and vegetables). They are the antioxidant flavonoids protecting and promoting the body’s health.

The flavor of the red onion ranges from sweet to pungent depending on its age, the particular variety, and how much sulfur was in the growing soil. Sometimes due to color tones it can be hard to distinguish between purple onions and red onions.

Nutritionally speaking, red onions have high polyphenol content (micronutrients evident in the prevention of degenerative diseases), and also include a rich concentration of flavonoid polyphenols: quercetin believed to have antioxidant qualities as well as anti-inflammatory properties.

Red onions are a great accompaniment for salads, in main dishes, and in chutneys and salsas. The usual rule of thumb is to use red onions for appearance, as in salads, and white or green onions for flavor. When cooking with red onions, the red color usually disappears once they are cooked. 

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