Friday, September 28, 2007

The Case of the Walla Wallas that Weren’t

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems as though I have the wrong onions.

This has happened to me before with other plants: I planted some flower seeds, and they came up as a collection of sickly, yellowish plants with narrow, hot-pink flowers that resembled none of the pictures on any of my seed packets. They came up in rows, so it was impossible for them to have been mere weeds. I have since identified them as some kind of honeysuckle.

The onions were supposed to be Walla Wallas, sweet onions that grow large and somewhat flat. For a long time, I worried that they would never form bulbs, but toward late summer the grassy stems started to bulge where they met the soil. Contrary to what I had expected (having never grown onions before), the greater part of onions grows above the soil, unlike garlic bulbs, which grow underground. Only the bottom part of the onion, with its set of short, weak roots, is buried in dirt. I waited for the onions to assume their characteristic flatness, but they never did. They stayed compact and perfectly round.

Now it is harvest time. The onion tops are flopping over, cutting off the transfer of nutrients between the leaf stalks and the bulbs. If I were interested in storing my onions, I would fork them out of the ground and cure them for several days in the sun. The curing process takes the moisture out of the outer layers, creating a protective seal around the middle of the onion. That works well for storage onions, which can be kept through the winter, but for sweet onions, it buys very little extra time. In general, sweet onions are said to last only a few weeks after harvest, at best. I resolved, therefore, to eat all my sweet onions fresh from the garden, without curing them.

I picked the first one two days ago, and was ready to eat it raw. Onion experts say that sweet onions are best eaten raw, because, paradoxically, their levels of sugar are often lower than those of storage onions; consequently, sweet onions add far less flavor to cooked dishes than would the typical storage onion. A sweet onion is called sweet because it lacks the chemicals that produce the sensation of sharpness that one gets from most other onions. These are onions of happiness, not sorrow: when you cut into a sweet onion, it does not provoke tears. So the experts have said, and who am I to quarrel with them? But I do know that when I cut into my onion, I wept. When I ate the first slice, I grimaced. It was a good onion, to be sure, but an onion with considerable bite.

The rest of the onion went into a cooked dish—chicken quesadillas—where it performed admirably, enhancing the savoriness of the chicken and cheese and mingling its mild heat with the fire of the hot peppers. I plan to treat the others similarly. Even if they are in fact storage onions and not Walla Wallas, curing the crop may not be worthwhile. I think I can manage to eat them all within the next few weeks, because a cooking onion can be used in everything from goulash to pizza. “An onion in every meal” will be my motto.

Although I was disappointed to find that my supposed Walla Wallas had turned out to be not so sweet, the results have proved satisfactory. The onions were easy to grow: I just plunked the seeds in well-fertilized ground and poured a lot of water on them. They take up very little room in the garden, and the visible expansion of their bulbs has been a joy to watch. And now that I have thought about it, storage onions are perhaps preferable to sweets, for their sheer versatility. I can imagine far fewer ways of eating onions without cooking them.

I have also learned that (contrary to the information on my seed packet) many types of sweet onions can, and in fact should, be planted in fall for a spring crop. The idea of growing something through the winter pleases me, and I think I will try putting some more seeds in—from a new seed packet, naturally. This time, I want to be sure of what I’m planting.

Next year, I will plant storage onions in masses. I would like to prove my self-sufficiency by keeping a root cellar of sorts. To be honest, I must admit that, underneath their skins, my onions are indistinguishable from the store-bought kind. But there’s something enchanting in the thought that those baseballs of compacted water and nutrients grew from the fragile, grassy stalks that popped up in the spring. It’s a feeling of having power—an absurd but refreshing sensation.

Tomatoes may get all the glory in the summer garden, but these onions, humble though they appear, have proved themselves worthy of esteem. Save them a row or two of tillage, and you will be amply rewarded.

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