Ode to the Onion

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Revered by ancient people, this edible bulb is full of
health benefits.

Rachel Albert-Matesz is a freelance nutrition journalist and
healthy cooking coach from Toledo, Ohio. More than 180 of her
articles have appeared in national and regional magazines and
newspapers.

Onions have been held in high esteem throughout
recorded history and used in nearly every cuisine around the globe.
They are one of the oldest known vegetables, probably among the
first cultivated crops, are easy to grow, do well in a wide range
of soils and climates, are less perishable than many other
vegetables, and grow wild in many regions of the world. Food
historians estimate that people have been sowing and reaping onions
for at least 5,000 years and that our ancestors feasted on wild
onions for thousands of years before the invention of farming.

Ancient onion lovers

The onion’s legacy can be traced back to 3500 b.c. in Egypt. An
inscription found on one of the great pyramids, built in 2500 b.c.,
details the amount of silver required to purchase onions, radishes,
and garlic to sustain the laborers and their motivation.

Onions were not only eaten, but also worshipped, depicted on
banquet tables, and offered on the altars of the great gods. To the
ancient Egyptians, onions symbolized eternal life (note the onion’s
structure of circles within circles), and were customarily included
in funeral offerings. Pharaohs were buried with onions attached to
various body parts, perhaps to ward off evil spirits in the
afterlife. Onions were used to alleviate more than 8,000
ailments.

A Greco-Roman denominator

The Greeks esteemed onions. Hippocrates, the father of modern
medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy
food,” and he counted onions as a medicine. The first-century
physician Dioscorides used onions therapeutically. Greek athletes
reportedly ate pounds of onions, drank onion juices, and anointed
their flesh with onion liquid prior to competing in the Olympic
games.

Romans revered onions by growing them in market gardens,
transporting them on journeys, and depicting them in ancient
mosaics dating back to the second century a.d. The early Romans
believed onions could cure vision problems, induce sleep, and heal
mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery, and even lumbago.
Emperor Nero, an avid onion and leek lover, claimed onions improved
his singing voice and male prowess.

Onions for all nations

Architects have modeled mosques (the Great Mosque of Tamerlane,
built in fifteenth-century Persia, and the Taj Mahal in India) and
monuments (such as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) on the onion
bulb.

Charaka, the famous Indian medical treatise from the sixth
century b.c., celebrates onions as a potent diuretic, an aid to
digestion, and a contributor to the health of the heart, eyes, and
joints.

Asians have similarly used onions. Onions have been used in
China

for at least 5,000 years–to increase urination, expel phlegm,
treat coughs, colds, wounds, ulcers, constipation, parasites,
vaginitis, intestinal problems, and hypertension.

In the Middle Ages, onions were one of the main vegetables
consumed (along with beans and cabbage). They were also prescribed
to alleviate headaches and hair loss. In addition, onions were used
as a form of monetary exchange, as rent payment, and for wedding
gifts. Since then, onions have been used to treat bee stings, bug
bites, and used–in World War II Russia–as an antiseptic in
battle.

An old wives’ tale touts onions as an ideal mouthwash. That
might be because raw onions are known to kill germs and ward off
colds.

An onion a day

What shall we make of this lore? Can an onion a day really keep
the doctor at bay?

Surprisingly, it may. Modern research supports a surprising
array of ancient onion-related health claims.

What’s the secret? Onions contain at least twenty-five known
active disease-fighting compounds. Like garlic, onions possess
antibacterial, antifungal, and immune-enhancing properties–which
may explain their efficacy in warding off colds, relieving upset
stomach, and resolving other gastrointestinal imbalances.

Onions appear to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, inhibit
growth of cancer cells, reduce stroke risk, and aid in preventing
heart disease.According to researchers from the American Heart
Association, avid onion eating can help prevent coronary thrombosis
and hypertension. Researcher Victor Gurewich, M.D., of Tufts
University, says one yellow onion a day may raise HDL (“good”)
cholesterol by as much as 30 percent. Oddly, red onions don’t
possess the same potency.

“One medium-sized onion contains only thirty-eight calories and
as much vitamin C as two apples, one banana, one tomato, or one
orange,” reports food historian Martin Elkhort. “Onions are one of
the ten most popular vegetables in the country,” adds Elkort. So,
an onion a day is a decent way to increase your odds for a healthy,
balanced life.

The onion’s most potent compounds appear to be sulfur and
quercetin, antioxidants that neutralize free radicals in the body,
protecting cell membranes from damage. Onions are the richest
dietary source of quercetin, beating out red wine and tea. (Yellow
onions top red onions in the antioxidant race, and white onions are
far behind.) Unlike wine, onions won’t reduce your reflexes nor
will they get you arrested, so you can safely overindulge.

Raw or cooked?

Both raw and cooked onions have benefits. Cooking softens the
bite, sweetens the pot, multiplies your options, concentrates the
volume and nutrients, and allows you to eat more onions in a single
sitting. Cooking reduces sulfur compounds slightly, though it
leaves the quercetin intact.

Recipes

Roasted Onions

Serves 4
Oil and dry heat cause onions to caramelize, creating a rich,
amazingly sweet taste—a fantastic accompaniment for fish, poultry,
or lean meat, or addition to salads (see the salad recipe
below).
I often make a double batch to ensure enough to serve for a few
days running. Leftovers taste great chilled or warmed briefly in a
heat-proof dish in a toaster oven.
Try different types of onions, herbs, and spices.
2 pounds onions such as Spanish, yellow, white, Vidalia, Walla
Walla, or Maui
4 shallots, peeled, or 1/2 to 1 head garlic, separated into cloves
and peeled (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed sage

Preheat oven to 400°F. Trim the very ends off of the onions,
leaving some of the root end; halve from top to bottom, then peel
off and discard the skin. With the onion halves cut-side down,
halve again lengthwise into wedges, leaving a section of the root
end attached to each piece so they don’t fall apart. Slice the
shallots in half. Note: If roasting for use in salads, after
quartering the onions, cut the halves in half or thirds crosswise,
to make 1-inch cubes. Quarter shallots if using for salad.

Scatter the onions in a 9-inch square heavy pan or baking dish
that’s glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or cast iron. (Use a
13¥9¥2-inch pan for a double batch.) Add the garlic or shallots if
desired, then the oil, salt, pepper if desired, and herbs. Stir to
coat. Transfer to preheated oven. Roast uncovered for 40 to 50
minutes, until lightly golden, tender, and easily pierced with a
knife. Stir or shake the pan every 15 minutes to facilitate even
cooking. Serve immediately or refrigerate in a covered nonreactive
container or jar. Use within four days.

In a hurry? Slice the onions paper thin, toss them in the
roasting pan with olive oil and seasonings, then cut the garlic
cloves in quarters and sprinkle over the onions. Roast as above,
stirring every 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove from the oven when onions are tender and aromatic–about
30 minutes.

Variation

Roasted Pearl Onions: Use 2 pints of walnut or pearl onions.
Plunge into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute, drain in a
colander, then rinse under cold water to loosen the peels. Cut off
the ends and peel the onions, leaving them whole. Prepare as above,
but arrange them in a large roasting pan that will hold them in one
layer, or use two 9- to 10-inch pans.

Salad with Roasted Onions and Sweet Peppers

Serves 4

This sensational salad makes a great side dish, although I often
serve it topped with sliced chicken, turkey, beef, or tuna as a
main course. Buy salad greens in quantity, wash, and keep some
stashed in a salad spinner; roast vegetables regularly; and always
cook enough meat for intentional leftovers. You might skip the
dressing, then drizzle each serving with meat-pan juices, lemon
juice, or balsamic vinegar and lightly toasted walnuts.

2 red or gold bell peppers
8 cups packed lettuce (such as a combination of romaine, arugula,
radicchio, or a packaged salad mix), washed, dried, and sliced
thinly or torn into 11/2-inch pieces
11/2 to 2 cups Roasted Onions
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
1 cup minced celery and celery tops
1/2 cup Herb Lemonette Dressing

Preheat oven to 400°F. Rinse the bell peppers. Cut them in half
and remove the stems, cores, and seeds. Arrange the peppers on a
lightly oiled baking sheet, skin-side up. Roast uncovered for about
30 minutes, or until the peppers are tender and the edges have
begun to shrivel. Cut the peppers into long, thin strips or
bite-sized pieces. Transfer to a jar or other container, cover, and
refrigerate.

Combine the salad greens, roasted onions, peppers, capers, and
celery in a large (3-quart) bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready
to serve. Just before serving, drizzle half of the dressing over
the entire salad, toss to coat, taste, then add additional dressing
or black pepper as desired.

Variations

Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup lightly salted walnuts, pecans, pistachios,
macadamia or pine nuts, or chopped black olives to the salad.

Use bottled, roasted bell peppers sliced into strips, or raw
bell peppers, seeded and sliced. Or substitute 1 cup sliced
radishes.

Herb Lemonette Dressing

Makes 3/4 cup

In this recipe–a takeoff of vinaigrette–lemon juice replaces
vinegar. Citrus juice is less acidic than vinegar, so use 1 part
citrus juice to 2 parts oil. If you love the taste of walnuts, look
for virgin-pressed walnut oil (sold in protective dark bottles).
Flora and Omega Nutrition make such oils, which are sold under
refrigeration in natural food stores or by mail from these
companies.

Note: To keep olive oil dressings from thickening and becoming
too hard in refrigeration, store the dressing in the side door,
rather than the back of the refrigerator, or remove the bottle from
the refrigerator 1/2 hour before serving.

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
11/2 teaspoons crushed, dried basil
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little more if needed, or
1/4 cup olive oil plus 1/4 cup virgin-pressed flaxseed or walnut
oil

Combine the lemon zest and lemon juice in a blender or small
food processor. Add the pepper, herbs, and sea salt if desired. Mix
briefly, then add the oil a little at a time, blending until an
emulsion is formed. Add herbs or spices as desired. The mixture
will separate after 5 to 10 minutes, so use immediately or pour
into the smallest jar you can find (to keep oxygen out, which
increases spoilage of flax oil), cover tightly, and refrigerate.
Shake or mix well before serving.

Refrigerate and use within one week for best flavor.

Variation

To make Shallot Lemonette, increase pepper to 1/2 teaspoon. Add
2 minced shallots and 11/2 teaspoons crushed, dried basil. Omit the
oregano and parsley.

Grilled Onion Rings

Serves 4

Grilled onions are unusually sweet, slightly smoky, and
versatile. They’re crisper than roasted onions, so enjoy them
served over burgers, salmon fillets, lamb chops, omelets, or green
salads. If you don’t have a covered grill or porch (for winter
grilling), cook the onions in a grill pan or indoor electric
grill.

4 medium to large red onions
Olive oil, to coat
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon coarsely ground, dried thyme

Cut off the ends of the onions, then peel back and remove the
skin. Slice the onions into rounds, about 1/3-inch thick. (Thin
slices are apt to stick, burn, or fall through the grill
grates.)

Brush both sides of the onion slices with olive oil and dust
with sea salt, pepper, and thyme. Place on a heated grill grate or
in a grill pan and cook approximately 6 minutes per side, or until
onions darken around the edges and the rings start to separate.
Remove from the grill (or pan) and serve warm.

Pickled Onion Rings

Serves 8

These sweet and delicious onion rings take minutes to assemble.
They’ll be ready to eat within 8 to 10 hours, although they are
even sweeter after pickling for 3 days. Thin slices are perfect on
top of green salads, burgers, sandwiches, or baked sweet potatoes.
They’re also great tossed with steamed broccoli and pesto. Brown
rice vinegar is less acidic than regular vinegar or apple cider
vinegar. It produces the best flavor for this recipe. For a
similarly sweet taste, you can use balsamic vinegar. If apple cider
vinegar is used, these pickles will be tart rather than sweet.

4 cups thinly sliced sweet onions such as Walla Walla or
Vidalia, separated into rings
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dill weed or crushed tarragon leaves

Arrange the onion rings in a nonreactive bowl. Mix the vinegar
and sea salt and spoon over the onions. Mix well, rubbing the salt
into the onions. Add the dill or tarragon and stir. Press the
onions into the bottom of bowl; top with a saucer that fits inside
the rim of the bowl with 1/4-inch room to spare around the sides.
Weight the plate down with a heavy jug or pitcher filled with
water. Press for 8 to 10 hours or overnight at room temperature.
The liquid should rise up to cover the onions within several
hours.

Cover and refrigerate the onions and liquid. Use within 1
week.

Split Pea And Onion Soup

Serves 4 to 6

Creamy pea soup is a snap to make. You can make it vegetarian,
or with poultry stock. For a smoky taste without ham or bacon, add
chipotlé (smoked, dried jalapeno pepper powder) and liquid hickory
smoke seasoning.

1 cup split peas
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock or broth, or filtered water
1 medium to large onion, diced, or 1 tender medium to large leek,
sliced
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced carrot or rutabaga
1 cup cauliflower cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
3/4 teaspoon crushed, dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried marjoram
1/4 teaspoon ground chipotlé or black pepper
1 teaspoon liquid hickory smoke seasoning (optional)
2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and minced (for garnish)

Rinse the split peas; drain in a strainer. Add to a 2-quart
saucepan with the bay leaves and stock, broth, or water. Cover and
bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until tender,
about 1 hour. While the peas simmer, chop the onion, celery, carrot
or rutabaga, cauliflower, and garlic.

When the peas are tender, add the onion and other vegetables,
herbs, spices, and sea salt. Add liquid smoke seasoning if desired.
Stir, cover, and bring to a low boil. Reduce the heat and simmer
until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove bay leaves. For a creamy texture, process the soup in a
blender or food processor then add it back to the pot. Stir, taste,
and adjust seasonings as desired.

Ladle into soup bowls, garnish with minced scallions, and serve
warm.

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