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Work the Menu with Alliums

Updated variations on the beloved onion ring include new shapes, coatings and presentations. Here, skewered petals of Spanish sweets are battered and fried, making for a craveable, shareable snack. Photo courtesy of idaho-eastern oregon onion committee. Onions, leeks, shallots, chives, scallions and garlic play an essential and sophisticated role in recipes

By Joan Lang

Talk about getting your money’s worth out of a handful of ingredients! Alliums (the genus name for onions, garlic and their kin) are among the hardest-working items around. These particularly odiferous members of the lily family — and if you’ve ever seen ornamental garlic in bloom, the family resemblance is apparent — are indispensable in laying down background notes of flavor in countless recipes from around the world.

Most of them also can be used raw or cooked to bring a jolt of flavor, color and texture to foods. And it’s a well-known fact that garlic has multiple personalities, depending on how it’s cut and/or prepared.

But, thanks to the efforts of ingredient-obsessed chefs, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, garlic and scallions are moving out of the shadows and into starring roles on the plate. They’re also being joined by lesser-known, specialty alliums like seasonal sweet onions; exotic imports like cipolline, garlic chives and other herb-garden denizens; and the newest of the bunch: black garlic, a fermented, whole garlic bulb that has made its way from Asian cuisine, bringing its antioxidants with it.

Onions and their ilk can be used in multiple forms and ways, from whole-roasted stuffed onions to garlic broth to chive crème fraiche and cipolline onion garnish. Check any menu, and you’ll fine the allium is always accounted for. These lilies have even found their way into cocktails (Gibson, anyone?) and desserts: The Stinking Rose, a “garlic restaurant” with locations in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, may have been the first place to serve garlic ice cream, but it’s far from the only.

1. Specialty Onions Are Special
The world is full of onions and uses for them. While shallots and leeks may have been the first to migrate onto American menus via French cuisine, the farm-to-fork movement has brought dozens of new varieties to the table. American standards like Walla Wallas, Vidalias and Texas 1015s are sweet, seasonal gems, made to be used fresh rather than dried and delicious when caramelized to bring out their sugars. Lesser-known winter varieties like the Oso bring a blast of freshness at a time when few other things are growing.

Garlic chives and yellow chives began their careers in Asian food but have migrated to supportive roles on seasonal American menus, useful as garnishes, whether chopped or used long and thin to tie up a bundle, and their flavorful flower tops are lovely in salads or on the plate. The spindle-shaped heirloom Italian red torpedo onion is unusually mild and sweet, perfect for salads. Big sweet onions like Bermudas can be stuffed and roasted.

  • 12-ounce Grilled Sirloin with basil mashed potatoes, broccoli rape and cipolline onions demi-glace — Barcelona Restaurant & Wine Bar, New Haven, Conn.
  • Pan-Roasted Salmon with garlic chives, shiitake mushroom and ginger-chile sauce — Straits Restaurant, San Jose, Calif.
  • Caramelized Vidalia onion tart: Sherman Hill Farm chèvre with fresh thyme on puff pastry — Peekamoose, Big Indian, N.Y.

2. More Is Better
Alliums upon alliums, either singly or in multiple varieties and guises, not only build up onion-loving flavor but also make for a wonderful “story” about the diversity of this far-reaching vegetable. Seemingly enormous amounts of garlic, when gently roasted, braised or caramelized, lend a surprisingly deep and mellow flavor to items like the classic Provençal-style Poulet aux 40 Gousses d’Ail (Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic). Multiple onion varieties add depth and interest to tried-and-true favorites like onion soup. And market menus are awash with seasonal allium specialties to showcase.

  • Hudson Valley Organic Farmers’ Vegetable Plate with roasted local squashes, braised leeks, cipollines, quinoa and soy —  Peekamoose
  • Five-Onion Stout Soup with sweet caramelized Spanish and red onions, scallions, garlic, shallots, rich Guinness beef stock, herbed croutons and aged Swiss — Top of the Falls, Niagara Falls, N.Y.

3. Garlic Variations
To paraphrase the cult-classic Les Blank movie, garlic is as useful as 10 ingredients, as many savvy menu-makers are discovering. Not only are the dried bulbs almost endlessly inspirational, but other garlic forms are becoming increasingly available.

Green garlic, the immature first-of-season garlic that is harvested before the bulb matures, has a leek-like appearance and a mild yet still-garlicky aroma and flavor, without the bite of the adult version. It can be used raw or cooked, similar to scallions, from the bottom to the very end of the green stems. Garlic scapes also have become increasingly popular recently. These immature flower stalks are usually removed to allow the plant to focus its energy on the bulb, but farmers and chefs know that the tender stalks and seed-head toppers have a savory, asparagus-like flavor, the very harbinger of early-season goodness.

And exotic, sweet-savory black garlic has emerged as one of the darlings of the specialty-ingredient world, bringing its complex, molasses-like flavor and melting consistency to a variety of signatures dishes. Originally used in Japan, where it was introduced by researchers in 2005, black garlic is produced by fermentation, which contributes to its flavor as well as its healthful properties.

  • Sopa de Ajo: Creamy soup of green garlic, roasted garlic scapes, garlic-scape pesto — One Block West, Winchester, Va.
  • Kurobuta “Black Pig” Pork Roast: Served on golden sweet potatoes with black-garlic butter, black-bean-corn truffle sauce and cilantro crème fraîche — David Paul’s Island Grill, Lahaina, Hawaii

4. Fried, Beyond Rings
Of course, there’s no end to the appeal of the fried onion, from whole, deep-fried “blooming onions” (introduced to the masses by Outback Steakhouse in 1988) to irresistible onion loaves, crispy onion straws and spicy tobacco onions, all endlessly varied with batters, seasonings and dips. The proliferation of steakhouses and à la carte menus has further fueled onion-ring variations. Members of the allium family can also be fried and featured in other ways, bringing flavor and texture to appetizers, salads, entrées and more. Crispy fried onions and shallots are a feature in many Southeast Asian specialties. Shallots and garlic can be thinly sliced and fried to create a chip-like counterpoint to a variety of foods. Scallions, deep-fried tempura-style, become beautifully crisp and tasty.

  • Tempura Softshell Crab with red sea salt and fried garlic — Straits Restaurant, San Jose, Calif.
  • Bacon Blue Cheeseburger Tacos: Smoked bacon, crumbled bleu cheese, chipotle sauce, shredded lettuce, hand-battered fried onion strings — Tin Star Taco Bar, Dallas-based

Mounds of garlic bring a deep but mellow flavor to savory, slow-cooked recipes like Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. Photo courtesy of christopher ranch.

5. Glazed And Delicious
Glazing alliums with any number of syrups, condiments or other flavorings is yet another way to turn them into unique and delicious specialties. Glazed onions are traditional accompani­ments to the holiday dinner, but the concept can be expanded beyond the familiar butter-and-sugar combination to include not only the entire roster of garlic, shallots, leeks and scallions, but also any number of glazing liquids, seasonings and other ingredients.

The list of flavorings ranges from sweet (maple syrup or orange juice, for instance) to savory and spicy (Worcestershire or sriracha) and everything in between. Soy or miso makes it Asian; caraway and beer, central European. These items can stand on their own as a distinctive vegetable accompaniment or be incorporated into recipes such as stews or pot pies.

An allium like shallots, for instance, can be hearty with red wine, balsamic or anchovy paste, or delicate with cream and fines herbes. And they can be cooked to a fare-thee-well or left still crisp-tender and texturally interesting. And the fact that they can be blanched or braised ahead of time and finished with a quick turn in the pan or oven at service is another attribute that makes glazing such a great technique to explore.

  • Egg Sandwich: Two over-easy eggs, kaiware, pickled daikon, soy-glazed onions, Dijon mustard, on sliced pain de mie —  Namu, San Francisco
  • Chicken Taquitos: Chicken breast with balsamic-glazed onions and fire-roasted red peppers wrapped in tortillas, fried and served with salsa — Lil’ Red Baron, Newport, N.H.

6. Buttered Up
Butter is the perfect medium for alliums of all sorts, because the fat both carries and softens the flavor of garlic, chives, scallions and more. Classic garlic butter is but one example of the way butter and an allium can become greater than the sum of their parts. Brown butter of all kinds has become more popular lately; adding a bit of onion to the butter as it slowly turns nutty and deeply flavored only enhances the savor.

Compound butters are an easy way to finish just-cooked foods, including steaks, grilled fish and hot vegetables, and this traditional preparation invites the addition of members of the allium family, from mellow roasted garlic to brightly flavored chives. Beurre blanc and hollandaise are also naturals for oniony flavor, helping to cut the richness of the butter emulsion. And, of course, butter that’s used for bread becomes even more savory with the addition of garlic, onion, chive, scallion or shallot.

  • Day Boat Scallops, chive brown butter — Half Moon, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
  • Wasabi and Ginger-Crusted Wild Salmon, with julienne of vegetables and grilled-scallion beurre blanc — Grass Restaurant, Miami

7. High-Flying Heat
Four little words say it all: roasted-garlic mashed potatoes. But there’s much more to know about these high-temperature allium treatments, which are particularly useful for bringing sweet caramelization to the whole-vegetable form — small onions, shallots, and leeks and scallions, for instance.

Grilled scallions are a classic of Mexican and Tex-Mex fare and can be used to replicate the Catalan springtime festival known as celebrating the calcotada, where whole spring onions known as calcots are roasted in newspaper over piles of grapevine cuttings until blackened, then dipped in rosy romesco sauce and served with prodigious quantities of wine.

Small whole onions and shallots can be roasted in the pan along with meats to caramelize in the pan drippings and add flavor. And any allium — but especially leeks — can be roasted in a pan under a mantle of cream and/or cheese to create a comforting gratin.

  • Tommy’s Great Big Crispy Fish Sandwich: Crispy beer-battered island fish topped with honey-roasted onions —  Tommy Bahama’s Tropical Cafe, Sarasota, Fla.
  • Scallion and Peekytoe Crab Pancake with sweet soy butter, grilled scallion, toasted sesame — Spring, Chicago

8. In A Pickle
The world is filled with pickles nowadays, many of which include or feature onions, garlic, shallots, scallions and other members of the allium family. These can be used as sandwich garnishes, counterpoints to rich pâtés and cheeses, in dressings and sauces and in many other applications that demand a bit of vibrant piquancy and crunchy texture.

Many fish tacos and other regional Mexican sandwiches, like tortas, feature the bright crispness of quickly pickled red onions, along with finely shredded cabbage. Small, whole, pickled onions, scallion bulbs and garlic cloves can garnish drinks and cold seafood or balance the richness of cured meats. Pickled alliums of all sorts can also be diced and added to salad dressings and mayonnaise-type sauces like gribiche, rémoulade and tartar. Pickling the newly trendy wild leeks known as ramps preserves them past their short, first-of-spring season, allowing a chef to buy a forager’s full lot.

  • Grass-fed hamburger, pickled onions and french fries — Nopa, San Francisco
  • Kobe Beef with pickled ramps, wasabi butter — Posh, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Onions, one of the most versatile and trusted ingredients in the kitchen, are lending more inspiration to menu development. Photo courtesy of national onion association.

9. The Saucier’s Apprentice
The world culinary lexicon is chock full of allium-based sauces and condiments, from onion-accented gravy to heady garlic butter. Soubise, the classic French sauce of sautéed onions combined with cream or béchamel, is staging a bit of a comeback. Sweet-onion sauce is indispensable on hot dogs. And no Indian meal would be complete without its crunchy, piquant accompaniment of onion chutney.

The popularity of Mediterranean food, meanwhile, has led to a growing awareness of the many and great garlic-based sauces that grace it, including Provençal aïoli, Greek skordalia and Spanish picada. And garlic and olive oil are the simple base of one of Italy’s most beloved sauces, aglio e olio, which can be dressed up with anything from broccoli rabe and sausage to fresh clams. More contemporary allium “sauces” include jams, salsas, purees and relishes, which are as tasty on proteins as they are when used as a condiment for burgers and other sandwiches.

  • Potato Tortilla: Served hot with chive crème fraîche —  Barcelona Restaurant & Wine Bar
  • Keegan-Filion Farm Chicken Liver Pâté, with Vidalia onion jam, toasted brioche — FIG, Charleston, S.C.

10. Fabulous Frizzles
Like frying, frizzling is all about texture and savor, with the added benefit of just sounding so cool: Frizzle is one of those onomatopoetic words that says exactly what it means. Frizzled onions are the perfect garnish for burgers and other sandwiches. They can add textures to purees and meltingly soft proteins like fish or bring a contrasting warm temperature to salads and other cold foods. In the case of onions and leeks, frizzling calls for cutting the vegetables into thin rings or julienne strips to help them achieve the characteristic delicately crisp texture easily and in no time flat. And they can be lightly breaded or battered (or not) and frizzled in a deep-fryer or on top of the stove in a super-heated pan.

  • Brooklyn Diner Cheeseburger Deluxe: Prime ground beef, Vermont cheddar cheese, hickory-smoked bacon, frizzled onion rings and french fried potatoes —  Brooklyn Diner, New York City
  • Celestial Black Grouper with pineapple salad, sweet soy dressing, frizzled scallions, avocado spring roll — Café Emunah, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

11. Confit To Be Tied
Similar to caramelizing or melting, the confit technique of slow-cooking in fat creates an allium with nearly magical properties. Not only is a garlic or onion confit delicious, but it also turns into a condiment with almost endless keeping properties, to be stirred into dressings, mayonnaise, sauces, other vegetables, pastas, soups — the list goes on and on. Confit garlic cloves make a wonderful upgrade for the bread service. And the oil itself, once flavored with the product that has been confited, is also a useful ingredient to have on hand.

Whole garlic cloves, shallots and small onions are most often turned into confit, but the process also can be used on sliced onions, split cleaned leeks and other allium preps. Allium confits are so sweet that they can even be turned into a kind of savory jam with the addition of ingredients like raisins, fruit juice or spirits.

  • House-Ground Cascade Natural Beef Hamburger with Dijon aïoli, garlic confit — Wildwood, Portland, Ore.
  • Sautéed Nantucket Jumbo Sea Scallop, with potato leek-confit and Noilly Prat cream —  Spencer’s, Palm Springs, Calif.

12. Caramelized And Melted
Caramelizing ingredients is a time-honored technique for changing their flavor and texture. This slow, gentle cooking method causes the oxidation of sugars in those ingredients, a non-enzymatic browning that creates a nutty flavor and brown color, both intensifying and gentling the finished results. Although the words “caramelized” and “melted” are often used interchangeably, melting an allium also refers to the process of cooking it slowly under cover so that it never browns but instead turns into a deeply but subtly flavored liquid puree that can be swirled into sauces or soups, mashed potatoes and more. Either technique can boost the flavor factor in recipes and add to the appeal of the menu copy.

  • Old-Fashioned Roasted Chicken with Carlton applewood bacon, organic crimini mushrooms, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, caramelized leeks and baby carrots — Black Rabbit Restaurant, Troutdale, Ore.
  • Parsnip Soup with melted leeks, puffed black rice, bacala — Ora Restaurant, Morristown, N.J.

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.