Onion

The onion (Allium cepa L., from Latin cepa “onion”), the most widely cultivated vegetable of the genus Allium. Its close relatives include the garlic, shallot, leek, chive and Chinese onion. The word onion comes from the Latin word ‘unio’ meaning unity, because it grows as a single bulb.

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The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season. Onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a food item, they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savoury dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys.

The onion plant has a fan of hollow green leaves and its bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. The bulbs are composed of shortened, compressed, underground stems surrounded by fleshy modified scale (leaves) that envelop a central bud at the tip of the stem. In the autumn (or in spring, in the case of overwintering onions), the foliage dies down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle. The crop is harvested and dried and the onions are ready for use or storage.

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The geographic origin of the onion is uncertain because the wild onion is extinct and ancient records of using onions span all over Asia. The first cultivated onions are the subject of much debate, but the two regions that many archaeologists, botanists, and food historians point to are central Asia or Persia. They were probably almost simultaneously domesticated by peoples all over the globe, as there are species of the onion found the world over. Food uses of onions date back thousands of years in China, Egypt and Persia. Traces of onions recovered from Bronze Age settlements in China suggest onions were used as far back as 5000 BC, not only for their flavour, but the bulb’s durability in storage and transport. Ancient Egyptians revered the onion bulb, viewing its spherical shape and concentric rings as symbols of eternal life. Onions were used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramessess IV. The fourth book of the Hebrew Bible composed around the 5th century BC mentions onions when recounting scarce foodstuffs available: 11:5 — We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. In the 6th century BCE, the Charake Samhita, one of the primary works in the Ayurvedic tradition, documents the onion’s use as a medicinal plant, a ‘diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes, and the joints’. Pliny the Elder wrote about the use of onions and cabbage in Pompeii. He documented Roman beliefs about the onion’s ability to improve ocular ailments, aid in sleep, and heal everything from oral sores and toothaches to dog bites, lumbago and dysentery. Archaeologists unearthing Pompeii long after its 79 CE volcanic burial have found gardens resembling those in Pliny’s detailed narratives where the onions would have been grown. Onions were taken to North America by the first European settlers only to discover the plant readily available, and in wide use in Native American cooking. According to diaries kept by certain of the first English colonists, the bulb onion was one of the first crops planted by the Pilgrims.

Shallots are a type of onion, but  was formerly classified as a separate species, A. ascalonicum. Like garlic, shallots are formed in clusters of offsets with a head composed of multiple cloves. The skin colour of shallots can vary from golden brown to gray to rose red, and their off-white flesh is usually tinged with green or magenta. You can use shallots in the place of onions when cooking, but they do make smaller harvests.

In the gardening world, we are used to three different colours of onions. We grow the brown/yellow/golden, the red/purple and then the white, which I must admit, I have never tried. Across the world the brown is often used in everyday cooking, the red is often served raw as it is sweeter, and the white are often used in Mexican styled cuisine as they are very sweet once sautéed.

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Here are some varieties to try:

Brown: Radar (one of my favourites), Alisa Craig, Stuttgarter, Centurion, Hercules, Sturon, Hytech

Red: Red Baron, Electric (another favourite)

White: Snowball

Shallot: Griselle (good), Jermor, Bistro, Golden Gourmet, Picasso, Mikor, Yellow Moon, Vigarmor

Onions are best cultivated in fertile soils that are well-drained. Sandy loams are good as they are low in sulphur, while clayey soils usually have a high sulphur content and produce pungent bulbs. Onions require a high level of nutrients in the soil. Phosphorous is often present in sufficient quantities, but may be applied before planting because of its low level of availability in cold soils. Nitrogen and potash can be applied at regular intervals during the growing season, the last application of nitrogen being at least four weeks before harvesting. Or try planting them in your crop rotation after the runner beans. Bulbing onions are day-length sensitive; their bulbs begin growing only after the number of daylight hours has surpassed some minimal quantity. Most traditional European onions produce bulbs only after 14 hours or more of daylight. Southern European and North African varieties are often known as “intermediate-day” types, requiring only 12–13 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. “Short-day” onions, which have been developed in more recent times, are planted in mild-winter areas in the autumn and form bulbs in the early spring, and require only 11–12 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. Onions are a cool-weather crop. Hot temperatures or other stressful conditions cause them to bolt, meaning that a flower stem begins to grow.

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Onions may be grown from seeds or from sets. We often use sets (I’ve tried shallot seeds and grown a total of two miniature shallots that were the size of my pinkie’s fingernail…) Onion seeds are short-lived and fresh seeds germinate better. The seeds are sown thinly in shallow drills, thinning the plants in stages. In suitable climates, certain cultivars can be sown in late summer and autumn to overwinter in the ground and produce early crops the following year. Onion sets are produced by sowing seed thickly in early summer in poor soil and the small bulbs produced are harvested in the autumn. These bulbs are planted the following spring and grow into mature bulbs later in the year. Certain cultivars are used for this purpose and these may not have such good storage characteristics as those grown directly from seed.

If growing from seed, sow 1cm (½in) deep in rows 20cm (8in) apart from late February through to early April. Thin by removing weaker seedlings, first to 5cm (2in) apart and then later to 10cm (4in) apart. Plant spring sets March – April and harvest August – September. Plant winter sets in September and harvest May – June. Plant onion sets 10cm (4in) apart in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Gently push the sets into soft, well-worked soil so that the tip is just showing, and firm the soil around them.

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Routine care during the growing season involves keeping the rows free of competing weeds, especially when the plants are young. The plants are shallow-rooted and do not need a great deal of water when established. Bulbing usually takes place after 12 to 18 weeks. The bulbs can be gathered when needed to eat fresh, but if they will be kept in storage, they should be harvested after the leaves have died back naturally. In dry weather, they can be left on the surface of the soil for a few days to dry out properly, then they can be placed in nets, roped into strings, or laid in layers in shallow boxes. They should be stored in a well-ventilated, cool place such as a shed.

Freshly cut onions often cause a stinging sensation in the eyes of people nearby, and often uncontrollable tears. This is caused by the release of a volatile gas, syn-propanethial-S-oxide, which stimulates nerves in the eye creating a stinging sensation. This gas is produced by a chain of reactions which serve as a defence mechanism. Chopping an onion causes damage to cells which releases enzymes called alliinases, generating sulfenic acids. Lacrimal glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.

Onions are rich in carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium. They are a very good source of vitamin C and so good for building your immunity. They are also a good source of enzyme-activating manganese and molybdenum as well as heart-healthy vitamin B6, fiber, folate, and potassium. Onions are surprisingly high in flavenoids, one of the top ten vegetables with Quercetin content. If you want to retain the flavonoid, peel off only the outer dry skin as the outer layers are more concentrated with flavenoids. Onions have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and help in problems like rheumatoid arthritis or allergic airway inflammation. Studies show that onions help balance blood sugar levels. Onions also have anti bacterial properties. There are many stories and folklore. It is supposed to have saved families from plague and other infections. The anti bacterial effects of the onions act against the streptococcus mutants that cause various dental cavities and gum diseases. Studies suggest that the consumption of onions enhances the anti clotting capacity of blood. Onions have been known to increase bone density, reducing the risk of fractures. The sulphur content in onions is excellent for the connective tissues as well.

Natural treatments that use onion:

-Onions are also used in the treatment of piles or haemorrhoids. The juice of 30g of onion mixed with water and sugar is administered to the patient twice a day.

-In alopecia (hair loss), a topical application of onion juice has been said to initiate the re-growth of hair.

Cough, cold and asthma is often treated with a serving of onions, as it is known to decrease bronchial spasms. Onion juice mixed with honey helps cure bronchitis and influenza.

-Onions are also known to stimulate the growth of good bacteria while suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria in the colon, reducing the risk of colon cancer.

-The juice of Tulsi leaves (holy basil) with equal quantities of lemon juice and onion extract applied on the skin takes care of many skin diseases.

-A slice of cut onion rubbed over acne is supposed to clear up the skin quickly by taking off the bacterial infections.

-Naturopaths recommend eating onion and jaggery to increase body weight.

-Eating one raw onion a day reduces cholesterol in the blood.

-A remedy for warts is the application of the juice of one finely chopped onion sprinkled with salt and left for a few hours. This needs to be repeated 3 to 4 times a day until the wart dries up.

-The cure for cholera in Indian households is one onion pounded with 7 black peppers. It lessens vomiting and diarrhoea immediately. A little sugar could be added to the mixture to increase its effectiveness.

-A tea made of onions boiled in water, cooled, strained, and given to patients suffering from urinary infections gives immediate relief.

-Slice an onion and rub it over the sting of a bee, wasp or a mosquito to ease the discomfort.

-In the treatment for chicken pox, Indian women would serve the afflicted person a bowl of curd rice with chopped onions.

 

Onions can be added to anything. They are the base of all sauces, add flavour to a salad when served raw, and are just fundamental in the kitchen for pizza toppings, curries, stir fries, pies…

Here are some wonderful recipes using onions:

Pasta salad with fried onions and tomatoes : Autumn planting … and a recipe!

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Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

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Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

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And lots more – just type onion into the search bar on the home page. 

 

Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg

One of the best dishes for cooking up unwanted veg from the garden or your fridge has got to be a stir-fry.

Almost and veg can go in, a basic one is very quick, once you have prepared all of the vegetables and the content shrinks down so much in the pan, that you can easily get rid of a few items from the storage.

I think you could probably get away with any veg but it all depends on taste. Personally, these veggies seem to be good to use, according to me:

carrots, bell peppers, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber is surprisingly good, any green leaves, like spinach, pak choi, swiss chard, Spanish tree cabbage, ordinary cabbage, kale, spring onions, garlic, normal onions, sweetcorn, mushrooms…

I’m sure there are more.

Another good think about stir-fries is that they can easily be vegetarian or vegan too. I don’t make them as much as I should do, but stir-fries are the way to use up veg when you have a glut.

So here is ONE basic, simple stir-fry recipe that is veggie/vegan appropriate. I use stir-fry oil from Sainsbury’s (because I’m lazy) but for this recipe I have included the basic flavourings for making your flavourings from scratch.

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A Basic Mushroom Stir-Fry

(Serves 4)

For the flavourings:

-2tbsp olive oil -2 garlic cloves, finely diced -2 spring onions or 1 large onion, finely diced -1tsp grated ginger -1/2tsp finely diced chilli

-8 mushrooms, finely sliced -1 red, 1 yellow, 1 green (or the equivalent in the same colour) bell peppers, de-seeded and finely sliced -4 celery stalks, sliced -3 handfuls each of kale, swiss chard, tree cabbage and spinach; de-stalked and shredded

-Dash of soy sauce -Dash of sesame seed oil

-Noodles, to serve

  1. Heat the oil up in the pan. Add the garlic and the onion and sauté gently. Turn the heat down to simmer and add the ginger and chilli. Stir for about a minute.
  2. Add in the sliced mushrooms, bell peppers and celery. Fry for a few minutes until starting to look a little brown.
  3. Stir in the shredded green leaves. Leave for a few more minutes and then add a dash of soy sauce and sesame seed oil. Stir and leave for a minute or two.
  4. Serve with noodles.

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Calabrese Broccoli

Calabrese broccoli, an edible green crop from the group Brassica oleracea, from the cabbage family is harvested for its flowering head. Broccoli has large flowering heads, usually green in colour, branching out from a stalk in a tree-like structure from a thick stalk, which is edible, surrounded by giant leaves. The growing style resembles a cauliflower very much.

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‘Ironman’ Calabrese Broccoli – July 2016

The world ‘broccoli’ comes from the Italian word ‘broccolo’, translating as the ‘flowering crest of a cabbage’ and is a diminutive form of ‘brocco’, meaning small snail or sprout. The broccoli we know today is the result of careful breeding of cultivated leafy cole crops in the northern Mediterranean starting in around the 6th century BC. Since the Roman era, broccoli has been considered a unique ingredient in Italy. It is considered that broccoli was first brought to England from Antwerp during the 18th century. Broccoli was first introduced to the USA by Southern Italian migrants but was not well-known until as late as the 1920s where it was written people ate the heads ‘like cauliflowers and the stems like asparagus’.

Calabrese broccoli was named after Calabria in Italy and is what most people refer to when they say ‘broccoli’, rather than sprouting broccoli or purple sprouting broccoli. Cabbages were being grown in what is now Turkey and spreading through the Mediterranean. During around 8th century BC, migrants to Italy supposedly brought the purple sprouting broccoli that established itself in Tuscany. The Romans were quite taken by the vegetable and it became a standard favourite in Rome where the Calabrese variety was developed and adored. Roman farmers named it ‘the five green fingers of Jupiter’. Apicius, cookbook author of ancient Rome, prepared broccoli by first boiling it and then brushing it ‘with a mixture of cumin and coriander seeds, chopped onion plus a few drops of oil and sun-made wine’. The Romans served the broccoli with creamy sauces, flavoured with various herbs and cooked it in wine. Roman Emperor Tiberius’s(14 BC-37 BC) son loved broccoli excessively. Excluding all other foods, he gorged on broccoli prepared in the Apicius manner above for an entire month. When his urine turned bright green and his father scolded him severely, he finally abandoned his beloved broccoli. Catherine de Medici of Tuscany may have been the first to introduce broccoli to France when she married Henry II in 1533. She arrived in France with her Italian chefs and armfuls of vegetables, including broccoli. However, the first mention of broccoli in French history was not until 1560.

The first mention of the vegetable in literature in England names it as ‘sprouting cauliflower’ or ‘Italian Asparagus’. It was not particularly popular when it arrived during the 18th century. Commercial cultivation of broccoli in the USA can be traced to the D’Arrigo brothers, immigrants from Messina, Italy, whose company made some tentative plantings in San Jose, California in 1922. A few crates were initially shipped to Boston, where there was a thriving Italian immigrant culture in the North End. The broccoli business boomed, with the D’Arrigo’s brand name ‘Andy Boy’, named after Stephano’s two-year-old son, supported by advertisements on the radio publicly advertised the green vegetable. Nowadays, broccoli is not so much the ‘stranger’ to the kitchen garden as it was once called by an English writer. In 2013, global production on broccoli was recorded at 22.3 million tonnes, China and India accounting for 76% of its production. Spain, Mexico and Italy were the secondary producers, 0.5 million tonnes annually.

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Broccoli can produce poorly in hot summer weather, growing best at an average 18-23C (64-73F). When a cluster of flowers have grown in the middle, large enough to eat but still green and not turning brown or bolting, the Calabrese broccoli is ready for harvesting.

This is my first year growing a Calabrese broccoli and I was amazed at the results, expecting it to be incredibly difficult and unlikely to ever grow a large enough floret to eat, much like cauliflowers (I harvest mini-ones, not the full sized ones you find in the supermarkets otherwise they will have bolted if I leave them to get bigger). But I have managed to pick a fair few biggish ones, multiple at a time to prevent bolting and because they were still only I would say medium sized but they looked and tasted like proper broccoli! I was very chuffed. The variety I have grown this year is ‘Ironman’, (Sow: January-June, Harvest: June-November).

Sow the seed 0.5cm (1/4inch) deep in a tray of compost. Keep moist and at a warm temperature. I grew mine in a warm bedroom in January and some later ones in March. Once they had germinated, I put them on a sunny windowsill during the day time and then put them on the floor near a radiator at night time again when it was dark and chilly. Once the plants are large enough to handle, gradually accustom them to cooler conditions (I moved them out of the heated bedroom to a cooler windowsill permanently until they were large enough to plant outside). Transplant into well-fertilised soil that has been Blood, Fish and Boned, manured, composted and mulched. Transplant 45cm (18inches) apart, allow 60cm (2inches) between rows. Plant firmly up to the lowest leaves and water well (all brassicas require constant watering). As frost will most likely still be loitering, fleece well for the next few months until all risks of freezing temperatures have gone. Once you remove the fleece, you need to net the broccoli with insect netting to protect your crops from birds, but most particularly cabbage whites that will wreck havoc. It is best to do this immediately after you have removed the fleece.

To harvest, cut the heads from the plants with a fair chunk of stalk and you should get some smaller side-florets following on from your main harvest. They need to be harvested before the flowers on the head bloom bright yellow. Calabrese broccoli is best steamed or boiled: bring a pan of water to the boil. Cut the broccoli florets from the stem, then, using a knife, shred the tougher outside bits of the stalk and cut up the tender inside into match-sticks. Place them both in the pan of water, turning down the heat and leaving to simmer for a few minutes until tender – you don’t want them to be rock solid but you don’t want to leave them too long or they will be a pile of mush and turn tasteless. The other way of cooking broccoli that I like is to add them to a stir-fry. They make a delicious addition and if you do not care for boiled stalks then this is the way to eat them as they accompany an oriental dish wonderfully. The other way is eating it raw, which I have done, but it is for those who really like the strong flavouring of brassicas. Store any cut raw broccoli wrapped in a plastic bag in the fridge and use it as soon as possible, within a week of harvesting.

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Broccoli is an excellent source of vitamin C (20% Daily Value) and vitamins K, A and E. It may be important to note now that not a lot of vegetables include such a significant amount of vitamin K. There are also many nutrients in broccoli including potassium, zinc, fibre, beta carotene, calcium, iron, plus many other essential benefiting nutrients, including carotenoid compounds lutein and zeaxanith. This vegetable can benefit our health, well-being and lifestyle in many ways due to its powerful combination of vitamins and nutrients. It can support and strengthen many areas of the body, such as the digestive system, liver, eyes, heart, skin, and the immune system. Broccoli has been suggested to aid the body in fighting major diseases including cancer and heart disease. This vegetable is rich in energy boosting vitamins that can decrease stress levels and influence concentration, alertness and vitality. Raw broccoli contains several amounts of B vitamins and manganese as well as reducing levels of sulforaphane. However, cooking it does remove these particular nutrients so if you like broccoli raw as well as cooked, then dig in.

Broccoli could potentially help to reduce cholesterol and high-blood pressures due to its nutritional content of enzymes, as well as osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer, as mentioned previously. There has also been research into the possibility of broccoli preventing adult-onset diabetes. Chromium, found in broccoli, boosts the ability of insulin to perform better in people with slight glucose intolerance.

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Eat your broccoli boiled or steamed with any dish that you would eat a cooked green: pasta, rice dishes, roast dinners, it goes very well with cheese… Funnily enough, recalling broccoli as a kid, I remember loving it with spaghetti Bolognese (excluding the mince) with lots of cheddar cheese melted on top of it. Try adding broccoli to your cauliflower cheese, along with boiled courgettes and perhaps potatoes/sweet potatoes if you have any hanging around – a delicious mix.

Fry it in oil and other flavourings for a stir fry and serve with noodles…

Roast or bake it along with carrots and parsnips to serve with your roast chicken and potatoes…

Or try this combination for a simple, hearty and nutritious weekday supper: Sausages and Rice with Vegetables.

Mix and match the vegetables and accompaniments for anything you like. For myself, I eat Glamorgan sausages (vegetarian, containing leeks, potatoes and Welsh cheddar cheese wrapped up in a breadcrumb coating) while my family eat organic free-range sausages. You can also swap the rice for potatoes if you have an influx of them too.

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Sausages/Glamorgan Sausages with Rice and Boiled Vegetables

(Serves 6)

– 6 -12 organic sausages/ 6-12 glamorgan sausages – 400g rice – 1 large (or equivalent) broccoli – 1 large cauliflower – 150g peas – 100g kale, de-stalked – 4 medium sized courgettes – 4 medium sized carrots – To serve, optional, redcurrant jelly, cranberry sauce, mint jelly, mustard, gravy, sliced onions fried in olive oil

  1. Preheat oven 200C. Put the sausages on a non-stick baking tray and leave in the oven for about 15 minutes until starting brown on bottom. Turn them over and cook them for about another 15 minutes until brown on top.
  2. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Tip in the rice and turn the heat down to simmer. Leave for about 20 minutes, until the rice has absorbed all of the water (stir in occasionally to encourage it). Once the water has gone, take off the heat.
  3. Bring another large pan/lots of smaller pans of water to the boil for the vegetables: cut the broccoli into florets, take the tough outer skin off with a sharp knife and cut the stalk into strips. Put into a pan of boiled water and turn down to a simmer. Cook for about 8-10 minutes or until tender. Cut up the cauliflower into florets and cook it like the broccoli. Place the stripped kale into a pan of boiled water and turn it down to a simmer, leaving it to cook for about five minutes. Cut the courgettes into small circles and put in a pan of boiled water, turning it down to simmer, for about 8 minutes. Peel the carrots and cut them into circles and put in a pan of boiling water, turning it down to simmer, for about 10-12 minutes. Cook the peas in boiled water for about 2 minutes.
  4. Once the variation of vegetables are done, drain them all.
  5. Serve the sausages with the rice and assorted vegetables and any optional additions desired.

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Glamorgan Sausage  with rice, boiled broccoli, courgettes, cauliflower and peas