Harvest of the Month: Ode to Onions

February’s Harvest of the Month is onions. Harvest of the Month is an initiative of Poughkeepsie Farm Project’s Farm to School program. A different local farm product is served in school meals at area schools each month and we are helping to promote these locally available farm products.

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Ode to Onions
By Allison Herries, Dietetic Intern, The Sage Graduate School

Onions are an ancient crop that has been grown by civilizations for at least 5,000 years.  The onion is part of the genus Allium and is related to other popular vegetables including garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives.  There are over 300 different varieties of onions that vary in shape, size, taste, and smell making this vegetable a versatile addition to almost any dish. 

Did you know that onions are the third most popular vegetable in the United States?  As a nation, we ate around 7.7 pounds of onions per person in 2015.  That’s a lot of onions!  And it is no wonder that we love onions so much when you consider the sweet and savory flavors that they bring to a dish.  However, an onion is so much more than just a delicious addition to any meal.  Onions are also high in vitamin C and fiber, and have only 45 calories per serving.  This means that onions can add tons of flavor to a meal without the additional fat and calories.  Onions are also rich in the antioxidant, quercetin.  This is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect our bodies from free radical damage.  Research suggests that quercetin may help protect against diseases including cancer and heart disease.

Having trouble cutting your onions through all the tears?  Slicing onions makes us cry because of the release of sulfuric acids from the cut onion.  These gases are a natural defense mechanism of the onion used to ward if hungry pests in nature.  When sulfuric acid interacts with the moisture in our eyes, it results in tears. One way to avoid this reaction is to chill the onion in the refrigerator before cutting into it. Another solution is to slice the onion under running water or while the onion is submerged in water.  These approaches will lessen the release of sulfuric acid.  No more tears!

Fun fact:  Onions held a sacred place in the ancient Egyptian culture. Ancient Egyptians believed that the many concentric layers of the onion represented eternity.  In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of onions being placed in the tombs of pharaohs because they were believed to bring luck in the afterlife.

 Irrigating the onion crop

Irrigating the onion crop

 Mini-onion harvest!

Mini-onion harvest!

Here at PFP, we grow a variety of both yellow and red onions.  We start our onions in the greenhouse around the first week of March and transplant them to the fields at the end of April.  Onions are harvested in the months of July and August, cured (the process where the outer layers are dried out into the papery layers), and then stored for use throughout the fall and winter months. The onions we are eating now are actually from this August’s harvest!

One of our favorite ways to enjoy onions is to caramelize them.  Here at PFP we think that caramelized onions make a flavorful addition to almost any dish.  Caramelizing or “browning” the onions takes away the sharp, raw flavor of the onions and replaces it with a savory, sweet taste.  All you need for this recipe is onions, a knife and frying pan, oil (we prefer olive oil for heart health), and salt to taste.  No added sugar necessary! The secret to great caramelized onions is to cook them slowly over low heat.  Remember low and slow is the way to go! Begin by washing your hands and all equipment.  Thinly slice onions, making sure to separate the layers.  You can make the onions as thin as you would like.  Heat the olive oil over low heat.  Once the oil is hot, add the sliced onions and cook uncovered on low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Adjust the heat as needed so that the onions don’t burn.  Finally, add salt to taste.  Try adding caramelized onions to sandwiches, salads, and sides for a flavorful addition!

Sources:
http://www.foodnetwork.ca/fun-with-food/photos/cool-facts-about-onions/
https://www.onions-usa.org/all-about-onions/nutritional-facts-vegetables
https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58340
https://www.onions-usa.org/all-about-onions/onion-health-research