What would cooking be without onions and garlic? Sautéed in butter or olive oil, they create the beginnings of many a memorable dish. These pungent vegetables are rich in sulphur, which give them their characteristic flavour and aroma.
Both onions and garlic are members of the Allium genus ‐in fact, Allium comes from the Greek word for garlic. In addition to onions and garlic, the allium grouping includes shallots, leeks, and chives.
Onions are an ancient vegetable. Native to the Near East and Central Asia, they were cultivated not only for cooking purposes, but prized for their antiseptic properties as well. In Egypt, they were even used in the mummification process.
The most well‐known member of the alliums are bulb or common onions of the Allium cepa species. Common onions may have yellow, white, purple, or red skins.
Onions may be either fresh or dried. Fresh (or sweet) onions are milder. Dry (or storage) onions, are stronger tasting. A storage onion can be identified by its thick, papery skin. Yellow storage onions account for the great majority of onions purchased by the average consumer. Yellow onions are strong flavoured, and are the best choice for storage, and are good for cooking in soups and stews. Red onions are the sweetest, but the worst “keepers.” They are especially suited for slicing and eating raw: in salads, sandwiches, or on a hamburger. Common mild onions include Bermuda and Spanish varieties. Pearl onions ‐ the smallest of the bulb onions ‐ are usually white, and are often used for boiling or pickling. Onions are biennials grown as annuals.
Scallions are not a different type of onion or vegetable, but rather they are the young plants of any bulbing onion, harvested before the bulb fully develops. Scallions are also known as green onions, spring onions, and salad onions. With scallions, both the white root (the immature bulb) and the green tops are eaten. Onions called “bunching onions” (since they’re sold in bunches), from the species Allium fistulosum, produce the best scallions with less “bite” than other varieties and excellent for cooking.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is native to Central Asia and has long been valued for its culinary and medicinal properties. The strongest‐tasting member of the alliums, garlic is a hardy perennial, whose bulbs are divided into cloves. Elephant garlic (Allium scorodoprasum or Allium ampeloprasum) is a separate species, which forms large, very mild heads, which can be sliced and used raw in salads or substituted for onions in cooking.
Shallots (Allium ascalonium) were said to have been brought to Europe by the Crusaders from Ascalon, a city in ancient Israel, giving the plant its botanical name. Shallots grow in clusters of bulbs. Like garlic, they contain cloves, usually only two, but sometimes up to ten. Shallots can be grey or reddish, or more commonly coppery‐brown, and have a more tapered shape than their onion cousins. Shallots are a favourite for gourmet cooking, with a flavour that is sometimes described as a combination of sweet onion and garlic.
Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum)are vegetables which look like huge scallions, are the giants of the allium family. They can be up to nine inches long and two inches thick, and do not form a bulb. A national emblem of Wales, leeks were probably first brought to England by the Romans. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands are the world’s leading producers of leeks, which feature prominently in the cooking of these countries. Also known as poor man’s asparagus, leeks pair well with potatoes; their most familiar cooking use may be in leek and potato soup. Wild leeks, known as ramps, are native to eastern North America.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a hardy perennial which look much like tall clumps of grass. (In fact, the alliums are closely related to grass.) Chives can be snipped and used from the garden as needed. A familiar favourite atop a jacket potato with sour cream, chives also add a mild onion flavour to soups, salads, and dips. Garlic chives (Allium tubersosum), also known as Chinese chives or Oriental chives, are a separate species. They can be used in much the same way for cooking, however, and are good as a mild garlic substitute.
Any way you slice it, the diverse members of the allium vegetable family add zest to any meal!