From scallions to sweets, the spring harvest brings a bounty of onions with diverse, delicious uses.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Dozens of plants in the onion family are important culinary staples, and spring brings many of the freshest-tasting to the table, including chives, ramps, scallions and sweet onions. All of these vegetables have the unique, savory taste we associate with onions but in a milder form—they lack the heavy, sulfurous compounds and pungent, burning heat of papery-skinned storage onions, which are harvested in the fall and don’t require refrigeration. By comparison, the fresh onions at their peak right now are moist and perishable with a delicate flavor; any of them can be used raw.
A simple tea sandwich of buttered bread with juicy slices of sweet onion and chopped parsley, a recipe made famous by epicurean James Beard, tastes like the very essence of spring. Snipped chives put a new twist on everyday spreads such as butter or cream cheese and add another dimension to salads.
Try quickly grilling scallions or sautéing or braising them with other spring vegetables; used instead of storage onions, they provide an earthy backbone to soups and creamy chowders that never overwhelms. Leeks, which are also in the onion family and resemble overgrown scallions, make a fine substitute and are always available; you’ll have to wait until mid-summer for locally grown, however.
In cuisines around the globe, the many onion varieties have countless uses—a small surprise considering that this family of plants has a culinary history stretching into the far-distant past. Even during prehistoric times (before 10,000 B.C.), the wild ancestors of the onion plant were dug up and eaten. Historical records from the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia, one of the world’s most ancient, confirm the importance of the plant: Official complaints were lodged in one city when the best onion fields were given to the mayor.
As history progressed, nearly every culture found uses for the versatile vegetable. Egyptian peasants subsisted on meals of ale, flatbread and onions. In pre-medieval India, a typical curry combined eggplant with onions and spices such as cumin and coriander. In China, green onions were (and still are) a ubiquitous condiment, sprinkled on soups and other dishes. The Viking dish of gravlax (cured salmon), served with onions, was essential eating in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages.
Today, it’s impossible to boil down the endless ways onions contribute to cuisine of every stripe. Whatever your own favorite method is for preparing them, rest assured there is always another recipe to sample—particularly when you step away from the typical storage onion and cook with these spring-harvest onions.
Read on to find out more about the types of flavorful onions typically harvested in the spring.
Ramps: This woodland plant grows in the Appalachian Mountains region (including Western Pennsylvania), giving Pittsburgh-area chefs easy access to this least-known member of the onion family. Also called wild leeks, ramps have a distinct, pungent flavor reminiscent of both scallion and yellow onion along with the bite of garlic. Although not easy to find in markets, ramps are a highlight of spring menus at restaurants such as Eleven (bigburrito.com/ eleven), where regional produce gets top billing—they will be gone when the brief season ends this month.
Scallions: Also called green onions, these can be either the very young version of a bulb-forming onion harvested in the early spring or a true scallion, a variety that never forms bulbs and has an especially mild flavor. Either way, the plant consists of a white base (it should be firm and unblemished) and long, straight, slim green leaves (they should be crisp and bright green). Store scallions in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer for up to five days; cook them whole as you would leeks; chop them for use in salads and soups, or blend them with softened butter or cream cheese for a delicious spread.
Spring onions: The term for regular bulb onions that are harvested early, spring onions resemble miniature versions of more mature plants. They come in lots of varieties and colors, from white to purple, and often have the green leaves still attached. Mild, moist and perishable, they keep best in the refrigerator and become remarkably tender and delicious when grilled; their fresh flavor also works well raw, so try them thinly sliced in salads.
Sweet onions: With a limited season that starts in spring, sweet onions are comparatively mild because of their high sugar content and also because they lack the sulphur compounds that give storage onions their sharpness and acidity (the reason you don’t cry when you slice them). Well-known varieties such as Vidalia or Walla Walla are available now—but locavores might skip the out-of-state sweets and wait instead for delicious, locally grown Pennsylvania Simply Sweet Onions, which arrive in August.