Among the world’s most ubiquitous vegetables, the common onion (genus Allium, Latin for onion) is universal. It grows in most regions of the world and is used in every major cuisine. On average, a person consumes 13.67 pounds of onions a year. I often have them in the pan before I’ve even decided what I’m making.
Although brown onions (sometimes called yellow onions) are the most widely used, other Alliums such as white, red, green and pearl onions, along with leeks, shallots and garlic, are also well represented at mealtimes around the globe. As with yellow onions, these aromatics seem to always be in season.
One exception is sweet onions such as Vidalia and Maui (they may have different names, but they are really the same species, although Walla Wallas are a different species than other sweet onions). And they are a different bulb.
Sweet onions have a relatively short season, from April through mid-August (although you may find them on the shelves for a bit longer), so we are in the thick of it right now. Sweet onions differ in that they have fewer of the chemical compounds that make onions so pungent and cause our eyes to turn red and water, our noses to run and the like. Because of this, according to Russ Parsons, these onions are tame enough to eat raw, as you would any other crunchy vegetable.
Here are a few ways to test that theory.
A sweet, smoky homemade rib rub brings out the flavors of Marinated Tomatoes and Onions, a refreshing salad also seasoned with barbeque sauce and vinaigrette (and raw sweet onions). It is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled and roasted meats. Sweet Onion, Avocado and Shrimp Salad is mildly flavored and both crunchy and creamy with plump shrimp that practically pop when you bite into them. The sweet onions complement rather than overpower the delicately flavored shrimp. Serve it as an entrée or appetizer.
A departure from the raw salads, Heather’s Caponata — a Sicilian sweet-and-sour eggplant dish — has you cook the sweet onion, so here’s your chance to assess whether they taste the same — and are as tame as other onions — when cooked.
The salsa that accompanies Little Beast’s Black-Eyed Pea Hummus uses a red onion — milder than brown but more pungent than the sweets; however, the hummus itself calls for a Vidalia (feel free to substitute a sweet onion by any other name). This unusual spin on the popular chickpea dip is one chef’s effort to give black-eyed peas an audience beyond the American South.
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches With Sweet Onions combine razor-thin slices of sweet onion and a semi-soft cheese such as Brie or Taleggio between slices of fine-grained white bread that are then lightly toasted in a pan on the stove. The crunch of the toasted bread, the sweet tang of the onion and the ooze of the almost-runny cheese … yes, there is a God.
Grilled Shrimp Quesadillas have you lightly sauté the sweet onions before piling them onto a tortilla along with smoky grilled shrimp, cherry tomatoes and queso fresco. Said tortilla is folded and then slid moved to a hot pan to brown, heating everything through and melting the cheese to a satisfying goo.