Cooking in the Tropics: Onions
I love onions. Most of the recipes I enjoy start with sautéing onions and garlic in olive oil. So it is great to know that onions are not only delicious, they are also good for you. Scanning the web, I found lots of testimonials to the curative power of onions.
Onions are one of the earliest known food medicines. For centuries, onions have been used to reduce inflammation and heal infections. They are great for soothing an inflamed throat. An excellent cough syrup can be made by combining finely chopped onions in honey. (Let the mixture stand for 5 hours before consuming the liquid.) Onion packs applied externally to the chest can ease bronchial inflammations. The phytochemicals in onions improve the working of Vitamin C in the body which also helps boost your immunity to colds and flu.
The onion is the richest dietary source of quercetin, a potent antioxidant flavonoid (found in shallots, yellow and red onions only but not in white onions). Quercitin is concentrated in and near the skin of the onion. It has been shown to thin the blood, lower cholesterol, raise good-type HDL cholesterol, ward off blood clots, fight asthma, chronic bronchitis, hay fever, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and infections and is specifically linked to inhibiting human stomach cancer. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral, thought to have diverse anti-cancer powers. Quercitin is also a sedative. Studies show that you can reap the health benefits of onions by eating just one medium onion a day.
Don’t discard the green tops of scallions. They are great in salads, giving a milder onion flavor to the dish. They are also rich in Vitamin A.
Onions contain a lot of sulfur and are especially good for the liver. To neutralize the effects of raw onion on the intestinal tract, combine them with greens, especially parsley. Add onions to your salad dressing at least 30 minutes before serving. The oil and citrus in dressings quickly pickle the onion and neutralizes their odor and sharp flavor.
The pungent juice of onions has been used as a moth repellent and can be rubbed on the skin to prevent insect bites. Apply onion juice to a bee sting for immediate relief. To protect plants from pests, spray them with a liquor made by pouring boiling water over chopped onions and then cooled. Plant onions in your garden to keep away moles and insects.
While onions and other members of the genus Allium are commonly consumed by humans, they can be deadly for dogs, cats, guinea pigs, monkeys and other animals. The toxicity is caused by the sulfoxides present in raw and cooked onions which many animals are unable to digest. Ingestion results in anemia caused by the distortion and rupture of red blood cells. Sick pets are sometimes fed with tinned baby foods and any that contain onion should be avoided. Nor is it good for pets to be fed onion-containing leftovers such as pizza, canned spaghetti, Chinese dishes and onion rings. The typical toxic doses are 5 g (0.2 oz) per kg (2.2 lb) bodyweight for cats and 15 to 30 g (0.5 to 1.1 oz) per kg for dogs.
As anyone who cooks knows, onions can make you cry, especially if you have to cut more than one. Eye irritation can be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water. Leaving the root end intact also reduces irritation as the onion base has a higher concentration of sulfur compounds than the rest of the bulb. Refrigerating the onions before cutting them reduces the enzyme reaction rate, and using a fan can blow the gas away from the eyes.
Cooking with Onions
One of my favorite new ingredients is a spice known as vadouvan. Vadouvan was invented by French colonists in Puducherry, (formerly known as Pondicherry) also known as “The French Riviera of the East”. The French, who love caramelized onions, created this curry spice that requires both caramelizing and drying onions. Here is the recipe we use for the vadouvan mixture we sell at the Tamarindo Farmer’s Market:
- 2 pounds onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 pound red onion, cut into pieces
- 12 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh curry leaves (optional)
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
- 3/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
Pulse onions in 3 batches in a food processor until very coarsely chopped (there may be a few large pieces remaining), transferring to a bowl. Repeat with shallots, then garlic.
Grind fenugreek seeds in grinder or with mortar and pestle. Combine with remaining spices.
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Heat oil in a deep 12-inch heavy nonstick skillet over high heat until it shimmers, then sauté onions and garlic (stir often) until golden and browned in spots, 25 to 30 minutes. Add spice mixture and stir to coat onions. (1 minute).
Transfer to a parchment-paper-lined large 4-sided sheet pan and spread as thinly and evenly as possible. Bake, stirring occasionally with a skewer to separate onions, until well browned and barely moist, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
Vadouvan keeps in the refrigerator 1 month (cool before covering) or in the freezer 6 months.
Vadouvan is an onion lover’s delight, and one of my favorite uses for it is adding it to caramelized onions: Double the onion flavor! It is a great condiment for grilled Portobello mushrooms or steaks. It is also wonderful added to this very simple pork chop recipe:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 (4 ounces) pork loin chops, 1/2 inch thick
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 or 2 onions, cut in ½ lengthwise, and then finely cut into thin ½ moons
1 cup water
- Rub chops with 2 teaspoons seasoning salt and 1 teaspoon pepper, or to taste.
- In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Brown pork chops on each side. Add the onions and water to the pan. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Turn chops over, and add a tablespoon of vadouvan. Cover, and cook 10 minutes until onions turn light to medium brown.
- Serve chops with onions on top.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.