Stillwater News Press

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March 15, 2014

Seed to Table 03-16-14

Onions take other foods to flavor town

One of the most rewarding things about writing this column is that it challenges me to grow. Yes, over the years I have amassed a sizable catalogue of information and understanding about food — its production and preparation; but, there is always more to learn and I genuinely appreciate the nudge to do so that this column provides. I hope you share my passion to learn and grow.

What prompted me to write the above was today’s topic — alliums. It has truly pushed my envelope. I know them as food seasoners. I was surprised to discover that most of you probably know them as flowers. That knowledge came about as I tried to ferret out their taxonomy — a very difficult task indeed. Taxonomy has always been messy, but the whole process has been complicated by some revolutionary changes taking place within the discipline. It seems we are in the troughs of replacing the old Linnaean system (based primarily on physical appearance) with one based on gene structure.

Alliums constitute one genus in the family Amaryllidaceae and the most popular of them as food are onion (Allium cepa) and garlic (Allium sativum). Other edible alliums are leek (A. ampeloprasum), chive (A. schoenoprsum), scallion (A. fistulosum) and shallot (A. cepa).

If the name Amaryllidaceae sounds familiar it may be that you know it through its decorative flower — amaryllis. Yes, amaryllis and onion are cousins. Both are more closely related to lilies and corn than beans or tomatoes. You see members of this family are monocots. But what confused me in my taxonomic search is that the designations monocot and dicot are disappearing from the literature and being replaced by Asparagales and Magnollopsida, respectively. So, keep this shift in mind if you try to do a taxonomic search — it’s gotten more difficult.

While relatively high in vitamin C, alliums are not terribly nutritious. A whole large onion has only about 60 calories. However, they produce a number of sulfur-containing compounds which provide for their aroma and flavor and, by imparting those to other more nutritious foods, render the latter more likely to be eaten. As a restaurateur, I was surprised one day when I realized how much onion I used (second only to lettuce). Onion went into practically every dish I cooked.

Both onions and garlic store well in a cool/dry/well-ventilated place. However, I have discovered that they can be frozen for even longer storage. This is valuable information if you garden and have a surplus. I simply freeze whole garlic bulbs in plastic bags. As confirmation of this technique, I just dug some three-year-old bulbs from my freezer, sautéed them with a little olive oil and cooked pasta to enjoy an excellent light supper.

On the other hand, I must dice and sauté onions before freezing. Then, after thawing, I reheat them to drive off the water released during freezing and thawing. If I don’t do this, they impart too strong an aroma and flavor to the finished dish.

Richard A. "Dick" Ortez earned a doctorate degree from Creighton University in microbiology. During the past 40 years, he has taught elements of food science at the university and medical school levels, operated a cafe, and run a truck farm and food processing business. He writes the Seed to Table column at his farm near Glencoe and welcomes questions, comments and suggestions sent to raortez@provalue.net.

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