One of my real wake-up moments as a chef was the night when a message was sent to the kitchen from a guest who stated he was allergic to onions and wanted to know what items on the menu were OK for him to order. It was in that moment that I realized that I was addicted to the use of onions, shallots, garlic and other ingredients in that family. As I thought through the menu I truly began to see how important these ingredients were and wrestled with an answer for this guest. There was onion in every stock, soup, and sauce; every dressing, nearly every salad, and used quite extensively in many of the sauté items on the menu; and of course – use with abandon in those wonderful braised items that I relished as part of my cooking signature. In other words, there was very little on the menu that wasn’t influenced at some point in the cooking process by these potherbs. I would need to carefully, and very consciously prepare something for this guest that was void of onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, scapes, or leeks.
In paying tribute to these “essential ingredients” I offer this story of the onion family.
ON THE FARM
Like many vegetables – onions and all members of the allium family require care and attention that is somewhat unique. Although farmers may grow these common vegetables from seeds, many choose to use smaller, immature bulbs (faster growth cycle). The onion, shallot, leek and garlic varieties require a bit of a sandy soil for adequate drainage. The real challenges come as the bulbs form and near the harvest window. It is important to expose the bulb to the air for drying since onions, if kept too moist will tend to rot. Once harvested, onions, shallots, and garlic will store in dry, minimal light for weeks or months, so they are less of an issue for kitchens in terms of shelf life.
Farmers plant and harvest different onion products at different times of the year and with the advent of centralized farming it is possible to offer almost all varieties 12 months of the year. However, certain products are traditionally seasonal: spring scallions, scapes in June, spring and fall leeks, etc.) Most professional kitchens will stock almost all of these items, even different varieties depending on their menu.
FROM THE VENDOR
Unfortunately, produce from the onion family is viewed as a commodity. Once these essential products leave the farm they are rarely addressed with the same care and passion, as was the case on the farm. Onions, shallots, and garlic are after all, very durable. They store well and have a shelf life that is rarely matched by anything outside of other root vegetables and tubers. It is common to see these items manhandled during the process of storage, loading on a truck, and delivered to the restaurant’s back door. As a commodity and product this durable in nature, it is easy to forget how important they are to a cook.
FINDING A HOME IN THE KITCHEN/FINDING A PLACE IN COOKING
Readily accessible, kitchens tend to stock 50 bags of yellow and red onions for stocks, mirepoix for roasting, and braising; caramelized mirepoix for finishing sauces, marinades, dressings, pickled red onions for salads, and battered and fried as a side for steaks or sliced red onions – slightly grilled and served as a garnish on the house burger. Garlic is peeled, smashed and minced for sauté work and certain sauces, and for aioli and hummus. Shallots are minced and pureed for sauté work and used in marinades and salad dressings, and relished by grill cooks for their finishing compound butters. Leeks become integral in soups and fried as a delicate and sweet garnish on a variety of dishes, while scapes find their way into soups or pickled as a garnish throughout the season and beyond. It is actually difficult to find many items in a kitchen that are not impacted by some product from the onion family. Cooks are comfortable with this versatile kitchen staple.
Onions and shallots, in particular, are often times peeled in advance and stored in large containers in a cooler. Although many cooks understand that some of the flavor and aroma is lost in doing so, there are so many instances in a kitchen when they are used that peeling them becomes a responsibility of prep cooks or dishwashers. Coolers will frequently be a home for peeled onions, garlic, carrots, and celery – when you need them they are ready.
DEEPLY ENGRAINED IN COOKING – TASTED BUT NOT SEEN
While, as mentioned, there are many instances when onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and scapes are visible in the dishes prepared in many kitchens, there are just as many instances when the flavor is present, but the product remains invisible. It is through this use of items from the allium family that cooks understand their real importance. The balance created in a stock through the use of onions as part of a mirepoix or caramelized and added to a braised leg of lamb or veal is essential. The subtle influence of flavor that a onion pique has on a properly prepared béchamel or an onion brulee on a secondary sauce is instrumental in developing the true character of a sauce, and the sweetness of leeks or Vidalia onions in a marinade for sauerbraten or pickling in corned beef helps to define the flavor traditions that make these items generational favorites.
AT THE FINISH
What are most unique about onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks to a chef are the versatility and “bang for the buck” that these items deliver. In most cases these essential ingredients are some of the most affordable in a kitchen and at the same time some of the most utilized. These items are essential to most kitchens.
A NOTE OF ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
In my first article in this series I stated that: “I challenge anyone to find a kitchen without these ingredients readily at hand and used frequently as the foundation of one dish or another.” A reader corrected me and stated that there are millions of kitchens worldwide that do not use the stated eight essential ingredients in their cuisine. I will acknowledge that my statement may have been a bit over-zealous and at some level incorrect, I do find however that in some form they are present in far more kitchens than not. There are examples of butter in Asian cooking, salt and pepper everywhere, stocks in Korean, Thai, and Chinese cooking (although they will certainly differ from those used in American and European cooking), eggs as a key component in most cooking styles that I am familiar with, and onions, leeks, and garlic flowing freely from storage in kitchens around the world. I will stand corrected but am comfortable in stating that these ingredients tend to unify cooks and cuisines rather that separate them. Thanks for the comment.
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