Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cheap Food Factfile : Onions

Onions
Price per kg- £1
(in some shops red and white onions are the same price, in some white onions are cheaper)

History
The onion is a bulb vegetables, and is part of the allium family, which also includes garlic, shallots, spring onions, leeks and chives. The onion has been cultivated for the last 7000 years- with traces of onion being found with other Bronze Age food remains. However these traces may have been wild varieties of onion, such as wild garlic, so the first record of cultivated onions (as well as leeks and garlic) comes from the Ancient Egyptians around 3000BC. Not only did the Ancient Egyptians consume onions, they also believed they were sacred, believing the several layers of the onion symbolised eternal life- which is why it is believed onions were found buried in the tombs of pharaohs.

The ancient Greeks believed that consuming onions “lightened the blood”, so they were consumed in large quantities by athletes at the time. In medieval times, onions were so important, sometimes farmers rent would be paid in onions! When the first settlers came to North America, it was believed that onions were one of the first crops planted by the pilgrims. At this time, onions were not only eaten- they were used in medical treatment, for making dyes for clothes, and were given to women and to animals in order to increase their fertility.

Types
Onions can be grown to different sizes depending on their culinary use, however, the 2 main onions used worldwide are white (or yellow) onions and red or “purple” onions. Onions harvested at a small size, are known as “baby” or “silverskin” onions, which are often used for pickling whole.  Spring onions are onions that are harvested before the bulb has had an opportunity to develop much. 

Health Benefits
Onions are low in calories, and 80g provides one of your 5 a day fruit and vegetable portions. Onions are high in antioxidants, flavonoids, and have been proven to reduce cholesterol. Interestingly, shallots have six times the amount of antioxidants as normal white onions.  Because of the antioxidant qualities of onions (and garlic), regular consumption has been proven to reduce risk of a number of cancers (breast cancer in particular).

Nutritional Information (per 100g raw)
Calories- 40kcal
Carbohydrates- 9g
(of which sugars)- 4g
Protein-1g
Fat- 0.1g

Import/Export
The biggest onion producers are China, processing over 20,500,000 tons annually. The two other largest producers are India and the United States of America.

Interesting onion facts
Despite onions being very good for us humans, they are poisonous to monkeys, dogs, guinea pigs and (especially) cats! This is why it is recommended leftovers shouldn’t be fed to pets (as our food often contains onion/garlic, as it is so commonly used in most of our cooking).

Some people are allergic to the entire onion family, but many are just allergic to raw onions. This is an allergic reaction to a protein in the raw onion that is destroyed during the cooking process.

There are some religions (particularly in India) that ban the consumption of onions, because they believe they work as an aphrodisiac.

Onion juice is commonly used in moth/insect repellents.

Do you cry when you chop onions? Well, if you have to chop a lot, the only way to completely stop it is to wear goggles (but you do end up looking like a bit of a Muppet). However, other tricks include cutting onions under running water, using a fan to keep the juices away from the eyes, and chilling the onions before chopping them. The more often you chop onions, the less your eyes will be irritated by the enzymes from the onions- your body builds up a tolerance!

Ways we like them
Onions are of course, eaten worldwide, and tend to be the base ingredient of the majority of recipes! Onions and garlic, due to their high “flavonoid” content, helps to add depth and flavour to dishes, without having to add copious amounts of spices/herbs/sugar/salt to dishes.

Many pickles/chutneys use onions as the predominant ingredient, like pickled onions (very popular in the UK, in pubs or on a Ploughman’s platter), and red onion chutney/ marmalade.

A classic recipe that uses onions as the main ingredient  is the “French Onion Soup”- where copious amounts of onions are cooked on a slow heat for a long time in order to caramelise, and then traditionally, alcohol (wine or brandy) , beef bones/marrow, beef stock and herbs are added. This mixture is simmered down, and then topped with a slice of stale baguette with grueyere cheese on top, which is then grilled in the oven.

In India, onions are often consumed raw in salads (just like the onion salad you get with your poppadoms in indian restaurants). Pureed onions are used to bulk up and flavour the majority of Indian curries.

Spring onions are used a lot in Asian cuisine, in stir fries, soups, noodle and braised dishes. A popular Chinese takeaway dish in the UK is “chicken with ginger and spring onions”.

 My favourite ways with them, definitely include the French onion soup mentioned above (one of my favourite foods). I also think caramelised onions are a great topping for tarts- see my caramelised shallot tart and red onion, goats cheese and red pepper tart recipes on the blog. When I think about it, I tend to cook much more with red onions than white- a bit I got from my mother. What’s nice is fried thinly sliced red onion, in Indian spices (cumin, ground coriander and cayenne pepper are a good mix) are great in curries, or stirred into soup (check out my masur dahl recipe on the blog). A traditional (and economical) dish my mum cooked for me since I was little was “Nepalese scrambled eggs”, where red onion fried in the spices mentioned above, with garlic, a little curry paste, and fresh coriander, is stirred into traditional scrambled eggs, and served on toast with some diced fresh green chilli on top. Don’t know how true this story is, but Mum says that in the 70s you couldn’t really get red onions in the shops, so mum and dad tried bringing a bunch of them back from Nepal, and they got stopped at customs! Pahaha! Part of me wondered whether they’d picked them out because at the time they looked like such utter hippies, lol.

I love a nice tomato, red onion, olive and basil salad- yum! Either on the side of roasted/grilled meat, or on top of grilled ciabatta as a  bruschetta topping.

I like mixing red onions, carrots, red peppers and celeriac with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasting them until they are all caramelised. I tend to use onion, garlic, and celery as a base for a lot of dishes I cook at home (casseroles, risottos, soups, stews etc.). This is similar to the “holy trinity” you get in Cajun cooking, which uses those ingredients and green pepper for the bases of their recipes.

When I had access to a garden, I successfully grew a load of purple (or red) spring onions, and they were so unbelievably delicious, I recommend that if you have a patch of land that you have a go growing them yourselves (and it’s cool because you cant get them in the shops).

I think, out of many of the cheap ingredients we use when we are on a budget, the majority of households tend to always have (and I think definitely should) at least a couple of onions in the cupboards. If you don’t already, I thoroughly recommend you start!

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