Growth in gardening: The onion family

Onions are very easy to grow and do well in Central Texas soils. They are also packed with vitamins and phytonutrients. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Any of the members of the onion family, (onions, chives, leeks or shallots) are wonderfully delicious and nutritious – especially when they come right out of the garden. Most home gardeners want to grow onions so let’s talk a bit more about them in particular.

Onions are very easy to grow and do well in Central Texas soils. You can purchase onion sets (transplants) at any garden supply store. Sets are tiny onion bulbs, grown from seed and forced into dormancy at an immature stage. Once planted in the garden, they resume growing. Sets are the easiest way to produce onions in the garden.

Plant your onions anytime from October first until the end of the year – the earlier the better if you want large sized onions. Place the sets in a shallow furrow and cover with just enough soil to leave their pointed tips at the soil surface. The spacing between onions should eventually be 4 to 6 inches, depending on the mature size of the variety, but you can place the sets closer together initially and harvest thinnings for use as green onions.

A disadvantage of relying on sets is the limited choice of varieties. Most garden centers label their bins of sets by color (white, yellow, or red) instead of by cultivar. You might be tempted to pick out the largest sets from the bin, but these can go to seed quickly instead of forming a large bulb. Look in the box for the ‘average’ sized sets, these are the best buy.

Perhaps the first thing to understand regarding the delicious members of the onion family is that they have changed very little since our ancient hunter/ gatherer ancestors first ate them. It seems that for no other reason than the fact that they taste great and are wonderful just as they are, man has never really tinkered with these veggies. That’s a really good thing too, it means that these aromatics are nearly as packed full of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients as they have ever been. So, you can grow any variety you want and still be sure you are getting plenty of health benefits.

The real key to getting the best out of these four is to know how best to prepare them.

Chives:

This one is really simple. Just cut them raw and add them to finished foods, do not cook them as getting them too hot destroys many of their best benefits not to mention it hinders their flavor. Chives come in two types, onion and garlic. Onion chives are most familiar to us and are sold in most grocery stores. Garlic chives however, are nearly 10 times better for you so grow your own either in the garden or a kitchen window sill.

Green Onions:

Also known as Salad Onions or Scallions, are among the most phytonutrient rich foods on an ounce for ounce basis. They are not really ‘baby onions’ as many people think but are rather a unique species all to themselves. Nearly identical to fossil records over 20,000 years old these antioxidant powerhouses – nearly 150 times more phytonutrient rich than an average white onion – have changed very little over the ages. Eat the green parts too as they contain the most nutrition. In a study released in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2002), it was shown that adult men who ate just 10 grams of these per day had a 50 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer. These can be grilled, steamed, stir fried or boiled in soup stock in place of other onions to add a super nutritional punch to any meal. Adding them at the end of a dish, as a final touch, is an old chef’s trick – it adds a pleasant taste, aroma, crunch and eye appeal.

Leeks:

Leeks are perhaps the most underused member of the onion family. The leek, which looks like a green onion on steroids, has a very small bulb and a long white cylindrical stalk of superimposed layers that flows into green, tightly wrapped, flat leaves. They are full of flavor and nutrition. Farm or garden grown leeks are usually about 12 inches in length and one to two inches in diameter and feature a fragrant flavor that is reminiscent of shallots but sweeter and more subtle. Wild leeks, known as ramps, are much smaller in size, but have a stronger, more intense flavor. They are available for a short period of time each year and are often widely sought out at farmers markets when they are in season. With a more delicate and sweeter flavor than onions, leeks add a subtle touch to recipes without overpowering the other flavors that are present. Although leeks are available throughout the year they are in season from the fall through the early part of spring when they are at their best. When preparing Leeks try to use those that are of similar size so as to ensure more consistent cooking if you are planning on cooking the leeks whole. Fresh leeks should be stored unwashed and untrimmed in the refrigerator, where they will keep fresh for between one and two weeks. Wrapping them loosely in a plastic bag will help them to retain moisture. Cooked leeks are highly perishable, and even when kept in the refrigerator, will only stay fresh for about two days. Leeks may be frozen after being blanched for two to three minutes, although they will lose some of their desirable taste and texture qualities the phytonutrients will remain. Leeks will keep in the freezer for about three months.

Shallots:

Another underused member of the onion family – at least in most American cooking – shallots are favored for their mild onion flavor, and can be used in the same manner as onions. A shallot looks like a small, elongated onion with a copper, reddish or gray skin. When peeled, shallots separate into cloves like garlic. Fresh green shallots are available in the spring and dry shallots (dry skin/moist flesh) are available yearround. Shallots have been found to be second only to garlic in their ability to destroy cancer cells. Like other members of the onion family it is best to cut shallots and allow them to rest for five to ten minutes before you heat them. This ensures you get the most nutrition out of your shallots.

While onions rank high as a great source of biotin, manganese, vitamin B6, copper, vitamin C, fiber, phosphorus, potassium, folate and vitamin B1, this richness in conventional nutrients is accompanied by their unique phytonutrient content. The really good news about the members of the onion family is that there are health benefits that stretch across most of our body’s organ systems, including our cardiovascular system, endocrine system, digestive system, immune and inflammatory systems, and musculoskeletal system. So, you have to eat your onions both for the flavor and health benefits they offer – and for my money, nothing tastes quite as good as that onion you harvested right out of your own kitchen garden.

Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Daily Record

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