Meet the alliums

They’re not just onion and garlic

June 23, 2008

In the botanical world, it’s one of the big mobster families — between 600 and 1,250 species strong. Whether wild or domesticated, green or dried, ornamental or edible, alliums have two defining characteristics: a bulbous body and a sulfurous nature, resulting in a distinctive “onion-y” perfume and/or flavor profile.

garlic scapes
Garlic scapes

Alliums appear in nearly every cuisine around the globe, and many cooking traditions consider them to be the building blocks of gastronomy. Consider mirepoix (diced onions, celery, and carrot), the foundation of classic French cuisine; the sofrito of Spain (onions, garlic, and tomatoes); the soffritto of Italy (onions and garlic); or the holy trinity of Creole and Cajun cooking (onion, bell pepper, and celery).

Here are eight edible alliums both common and obscure, varying in shape, size, and flavor intensity.

  1. Chives
    Chives. Twelve years ago, as a rookie line cook at Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington, D.C., I learned, among other things, how to chop chives.

    “Ringlets, young lady,” sous chef Gillian Clark barked at me as I prepped my station. “Stop smashing them!” Clark, who now runs her own restaurant (Colorado Kitchen, also in Washington, D.C.) and has written a culinary memoir, remains one of my mentors, and because of her, I’ve learned to respect chives, the smallest of all the edible alliums.

    Unlike the other alliums in this group, chives produce wispy blades rather than fibrous shoots, and so are used more like an herb than a vegetable. A gentle rocking motion with a sharp knife will result in desirable chive ringlets, which offer the faintest onion-y flavor that turn ordinary scrambled eggs and garlic-rubbed toast into transcendent nibbles.
  2. scallions
    Scallions, or green onions
    Scallions. Or is it green onions? Apparently, it’s an East Coast versus West Coast thing, and if you live in the east, you know the skinny green-topped bulbs as scallions. However, a more fully developed green-topped bulb is known as a “spring onion.” Got that?

    I like using scallions as a garnish — on top of black beans, pico de gallo, or a bowl of rice with cucumbers and soy sauce. They offer plenty more piquancy than chives, yet maintain their herbaceous notes until it’s time to become a full-fledged onion. Next time you fire up the grill, throw a bunch into a grill basket with a quick brush of olive oil, and you’ll end up with some sultry cebollitas asadas — or grilled scallions.
  3. Leeks
    Leeks. It may look like an overgrown scallion, but it’s not. The most vegetal of all the alliums in this collection, the leek is a cross between a mild onion and a sweet lettuce, I reckon. “Gentle giant” is how cookbook author Elizabeth Schneider refers to the leek in her Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini.

    Although not ideal in raw form, the leek is incredibly versatile when heat is applied. You can boil and purée it, braise it, poach it, roast it, steam it, and frizzle it in oil. It makes fast friends with soup, potatoes, rice (hello, risotto!), herbs, lemons, and a variety of steaky fish, including halibut and mahi mahi.

    Whichever leek partner you choose, make sure your leeks are free of sand and silt, which like to lurk in the inner crevices. To prep, trim the woody dark green parts, cut off the root, then slice in half lengthwise. Place under running water and allow dirt to rinse away.
  4. onions
    Onions. The thin slice of onion that your mother sticks between two pieces of white bread and a schmear of liverwurst? In all likelihood, that’s a fresh onion. Defined by its thin, somewhat moist skin and a fairly high water content, the fresh onion is sweet and mild enough to eat raw with that liverwurst. You might know it as a Walla Walla, Vidalia, Maui, or Mayan Sweet, and depending on where it’s grown, it shows up in markets on a seasonal basis.

    Conversely, the onion that comes packed in those netted bags that you buy for soup, stew, and roast beast is known in onion circles as the storage onion, commonly labeled as the yellow onion. Its skin is more like wrapping paper, and its water content is much lower, resulting in that piquant bite and nose we all associate with the onion.

    Here’s an interesting tidbit from the National Onion Association: The Egyptians regarded the onion as a symbol of eternity and buried onions in mummies.
  5. pearl onions
    Pearl onions
    Pearl onions. Have you met Pearl? She’s a little thing, often pickled for cocktail hour but also found on many a Thanksgiving table in creamed fashion.

    The pearl among the Pearls, in my opinion, is the cipolline, the Italian disc-shaped beauty — dreamy morsels when roasted or boiled, then glazed with a wine-brandy reduction. Yowza.
  6. ramps
    Ramps. If you ever passed through (or hail from) the Appalachians, you may know of this stinky leek that grows wild in the woodlands. The ramp is usually the first sign of spring in places like Richwood, West Virginia, which holds a renowned ramp festival every March or April.

    Unlike the common leek, the ramp has a thin reddish bulb, topped off with pointy green leaves that resemble the shoots of a tulip. Forget her looks, though; the most defining characteristic of the ramp is her perfume. One bunch of ramps can stink up the joint in minutes.

    You can cook both the bulb and the greens, but because the flavor is intense, I recommend sautéing or braising them first, then mixing with potatoes or pasta — something starchy to cushion some of the rampy-ness. I have friends who love ’em sauteed with morels or fiddlehead ferns.
  7. shallots
    Shallots. Not quite an onion and not quite garlic, the shallot is like a mysterious and beautiful woman you meet on a train and never see again, but she changes your life. She’s pretty in coral pink and oh so petite, but she packs a piquant punch. And yet, her flavor and texture are both subtle and sophisticated. She might very well be my favorite allium.

    A staple of Thai and Vietnamese cookery, the shallot is minced and mixed with spices and other aromatics to create a base of multi-layered flavors, making Southeast Asian food intensely heady. Try caramelizing whole shallots in a cast-iron skillet over low heat with butter and oil; in an hour, you’ll have shallot jam that will send you to the moon. Uncooked shallots can also be added to vinaigrettes, much like garlic. Which brings us to:
  8. green garlic, garlic, and garlic scapes
    Left to right: Garlic scapes, green garlic, and regular garlic
    Garlic. Here’s where I get to say all onions are alliums, but not alliums are onions. As much as I love garlic, these days I am more intrigued by its earliest incarnations, before it becomes a fully formed bulb. I’m talking about green garlic and the garlic scape.

    At a glance, green garlic could pass for a spring onion, but a quick whiff and you’ll know better. You can mince both the tops and bulb for a milder garlic experience, but what I like is that it feels clean and bright on the tongue. It feels like spring. If risotto is in your future, try seasoning it with the allium duo of green garlic and leeks, a spritzy combination.

    About six weeks after green garlic makes its arrival, those ever-growing bulbs produce a curly green shoot reminiscent of Medusa’s hair. That curl is also called a scape, and it’s not only edible, it’s fabulous. When you see those curls at your farmer’s market, don’t waste any time deliberating; run home and make a batch of pesto that you’ll remember for the rest of time. For about four weeks in June, I make lots of garlic-scape pesto and use it like a condiment. Throw it into pasta or just eat it off a spoon.

Kim O’Donnel is a blogger for the Washington Post and Real Simple magazine, and the author of A Mighty Appetite for the Holidays.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Ric on Jun 23, 2008 at 4:47 PM PDT

Really informative article Kim. And you’re so right about alliums being a staple part of so many different cooking traditions. We eat a lot of Mediterranean and Asian foods in our household, and a good majority of these dishes contain either onions, garlic or shallots in some form -- such as paella, risotto, pastas, curries and stir-fries.

An added bonus to eating plenty of alliums is that they’re a good source of some very health-giving phytonutrients including allicin and quercetin that studies have shown help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.

2. by sj.breeze on Jun 25, 2008 at 1:32 PM PDT

When I buy leeks, I look for the ones with the most amount of white on them, since the green part just ends up in the compost or stock. Just another tip.

Really thorough article! Are the scapes in the photo from hardneck or soft neck garlic? Seems like there are two types: one with skinny bulbs and one with fat bulbs, and they correspond to what kind of garlic it is, though I don’t really know.

3. by Liz Crain on Jun 25, 2008 at 6:12 PM PDT

Do you know why the garlic scape pesto recipe leaves out the garlic buds? I always like their flavor too.

4. by Kim O'Donnel on Jun 26, 2008 at 6:56 PM PDT

LizCrain: Throw those buds in! I don’t like the way they puree, which is why I leave’em out.
Thanks for the leek tips, sj. breeze, and the phytonutrient tidbits, Ric!

5. by Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener on Jun 28, 2008 at 6:38 PM PDT

and don’t forget garlic chives, that pungent green denizen of the allium world. Green like chives, but with flat leaves - and much more assertive than chives. I like to stir fry the whole thing (leaves and entire stem) and serve them with noodles and/or eggs. Great in early spring as it emerges pretty early in the kitchen garden. Also produces a very o pretty edible white flower in late summer - but deadhead them before they set seeds, or you’ll have a sea of garlic chives!

6. by Caroline Cummins on Jul 3, 2008 at 6:19 PM PDT

SJ Breeze: I asked my CSA farmer, who is currently handing out garlic scapes at the weekly pickup, about the softneck/hardneck thing. She said that only hardneck garlic produces scapes; softneck garlic doesn’t flower at all. So there you go.

7. by sj.breeze on Jul 7, 2008 at 10:14 AM PDT

Thanks for the clarification, Caroline!

8. by mandahxo on Jul 7, 2008 at 10:58 AM PDT

I made the pesto last night, and whew! It was stronger than I anticipated! Does it make a difference how old the scapes are? I didn’t put it in my sandwich today as planned for fear of scaring off my students!

9. by Liz Crain on Jul 9, 2008 at 2:11 PM PDT

mandahxo -- I was a little blown away by my scape pesto too but I first added some water and citrus and that tamed it somewhat.

I also mixed it with mayo for sandwiches, used it on grilled foods -- salmon and vegetables, and cooked it with cream for a pasta sauce. Cooking it brings it down a notch and adding citrus and water also cuts it, but not as much as heat.

It also just mellows out naturally as it sits. I had a lot of scape pesto this summer because I have 150 heads of garlic in the ground -- the most I’ve ever planted. Good luck.

10. by mandahxo on Jul 10, 2008 at 7:20 AM PDT

Well I did end up putting the pesto on a sandwich (for dinner) and what I noticed was that the dreaded garlic breath was much shorter-lived than usual. With ordinary garlic, I would have woken up with some potent morning breath, but with this pesto, that was not the case. Since then I have tried it again and the garlic breath wears off after a couple of hours. Whew!

And Liz - it is good with mayo! Good luck to you with all that garlic!!!

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