Now that the weather is more and more iffy again, we tend to dress ourselves in layers. How convenient to discard one or to don another layer just at a second’s whim. In my mother country it has even received a specific name: Zwiebel-Look (pronounce ‘tsvee-bul-look). Meaning onion look. And indeed, the onion, though so often taken for granted by us is so much more than just a bulb that makes our eyes burn and tear up if we don’t breathe through the mouth while cutting it.
If you have ever left an onion in a garden bed, you’ll have realized that it is not just the annual as which we treat it. They are quite an international vegetable, too, by the way, and the English term chive derives directly from the Old French cive which is of the Latin stem “cepa”, which in turn means onion. Basically, chives belong to the onion family. It appears that even 7,000 years ago people knew how to use onions – they have been cultivated for longer than that (if we are to believe our go-to Wikipedia site) and might have originated somewhere in the Middle East to Central Asia. Onions were recovered from Chinese Bronze age settlements, were used in Egyptian burials as a symbol of eternal life due to their spherical layers. The Romans knew onions to heal oral sores, toothaches, and lumbago; and the famous Roman chef Apicius used them in quite a few of his recipes. When the first Europeans arrived in North America, they sort of brought owls to Athens with their onion import, because the indigenous people already used the domestic onion varieties widely.
If harvested before bulbing, we have scallions or green onions. The mature version will be used in any way of preparation from raw over sautéed, caramelized, pickled, steamed, grilled, deep-fried, baked, you name it. I have always liked some crispy-fried onions over mashed potatoes, and two of my favorite dishes are French onion soup (made in the version by Julia Child with red wine) and Baden-style onion tart, kind of a deep-dish pizza covered with cold-smoked Black Forest bacon, loads of caramelized onions and caraway seeds, and a seasoned topping made from eggs and heavy cream. A hundred grams of onion (ca. a quarter pound) contain only 40 calories, by the way, and while being extraordinarily flavorful you can enjoy them pretty carefree.
Onions also have a history of medical use in so-called household remedies. I remember a movie, in which a pneumonia-sick Harry Dean Stanton is cured with a full-body onion poultice. Onion-tea is supposed to help when you have a cough (a brew of the outer layers also stains Easter eggs in a nice manner). Chewing raw onions will help with tooth aches and kill germs in your mouth. And they are even known to lower blood sugar levels. But onions are also toxic to dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and a number of other animals. Also, some people are allergic to onions; breaking down the proteins by cooking them – the onions, not the people – will make them consumable.
Of course, everybody knows of another issue with onions – that they bite back when you cut into them. That’s because they emit a gas when broken into (synthetic onion gas is used in tear gas, by the way!), and that eventually reaches the lacrimal glands, which in their turn react by producing tears to wash out the irritant. It helps a lot to breathe through the mouth instead of the nose while cutting onions; the nose is directly connected with the eyes by way of tear ducts. Or you can wash the onions after having removed the outer inedible layers and use a fan to blow the gas away. The more often you chop onions, the less you will experience an eye irritation. These days, I can cut onions without even pondering much about it other than the beauty of the Matryoshka-like layers and how something so small can add such flavor to food.
If you want to plant onions, see to it that you are not in a hot zone, as that makes them shoot into stems pretty fast. They will produce bulbs only when days have reached a length of at least 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Bulbs ought to be planted in spring and harvested later in the growing season, depending on the type and desired size. Of course, you want the beds to be weeded meticulously, but not watered excessively. After harvesting, you can leave them out to dry, then place them into nets, bind them into ropes, or layer them in shallow boxes – they need to be stored in cool, well-ventilated places. I have a terracotta onion jar with extra holes in the side to exactly that purpose. At any rate, you want to keep them separate from other vegetable, since they draw moisture from them, which might cause rot. Once an onion is cut into, it should be used up within a couple of days.
There is one more curious fact about onions: In 1958, The Onion Futures Act, which bans the trading of futures contracts on onions (for manipulating the market) in the United States, was passed. It is still in effect today.
You may think me weird, but when I am in the produce aisle of a supermarket or walking a Farmers Market, this is what comes to my mind. The incredible versatility of uses of just each single item. And this is what makes cooking such a wonderfully meditative pastime for me. In a way, in cooking I say grace for the miracle that lies in even such a small thing as an onion.