Jim Pittenger places coke-sizzled onions on a bratwurst at his Biker Jim’s cart in Denver. (Photo by Kim Long)
(This feature originally appeared in Produce Business magazine)
By John Lehndorff
Try to conceive of a completely onion-free menu at a restaurant, catered event or food service operation. No sliced red onions on burgers. No French onion soup, garlic bread or Vidalia onion rings. Subtract minced scallions in Asian soups, chopped white onions in salsa or sautéed yellow onions in the goulash. Also banned are onion’s pungent relatives: garlic, chives, leeks and shallots.
Pretty tough, huh?
Versatile affordable onions are vital to nearly every cuisine globally and beyond a few volumes about baking, onion-free cookbooks are few and far between.
“It’s hard to imagine cooking without at least some onions,” Kimberly Reddin says. As Director of Public & Industry Relations at the National Onion Association (NOA), she helps the organization represent growers across the country who supply whole yellow, red and white onions to supermarkets, restaurants and foodservice operations.
Onions aren’t what you order from the menu but they make almost everything you do order taste better. Despite its essential place in the American kitchen, onions are the Rodney Dangerfields of the produce aisle. “I don’t know how many people actually think of them as a vegetable,” Reddin says matter-of-factly, suggesting they are thought of more like a grain or a commodity.
“Onions are always there. It’s the stable staple,” she says.
That taken-for-granted attitude toward onions is changing gradually as the result of a number of long-term consumer trends including healthier eating, the steady rise of savory ethnic cuisines, expanding consumer savvy about ingredients and cuisines, and a growing focus on consuming locally grown produce.
Restaurants, foodservice operations and even schools are finding new ways to use the versatile ingredient: pickled alongside charcuterie on cheese plates, braised whole in sherry, sizzled with Coca-Cola as a brat condiment and topping school lunch pizzas.
“We see in studies that all colors and types of onions are being mentioned much more on menus,” NOA’s Reddin says, including roasted onion aioli and onion jam on sandwiches. Of all the onions the red variety is topping the list.
Datassential’s Menutrends Database of about 5,000 U.S. chain and independent restaurant menus shows that red onions appearance on menus increased nearly 11 percent (10.8) from 2010-2014 and the pungent favorite is present on 48.8 percent of menus (2014 penetration).
Kim Reddin gives partial credit for the increase to Pizza Hut, Subway and other restaurant chains which started offering red onions by name on menus. Red onions are also starring in popular appetizers at independent restaurants like The Green Well Gastro Pub in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I like the red onions because of the color and because they are slightly sweeter,” chef Jeff Finan says. His Charred Onion-Goat Cheese Skillet starts with red onions that are cooked until almost burnt on a hot flat surface so that they get dark without going limp. They are mixed with goat cheese in a cast iron skillet and served bubbly hot with a tomato-arugula salad and toasted artisan bread.
“I love using all the different kinds of onions, like fried leeks as a garnish, shallots in many dishes and we sell a lot of green grits with scallions and green chilies,” Finan says. For his upgraded mac-’n’-cheese, the chef adds griddled yellow onions that are grown locally.
“Local” matters a lot at the restaurant which sources most of its produce including onions from regional farmers and showcases local wine, cheese and beer by name. “The diners here like to know where everything comes from,” he says.
Onions are the most “local” produce item you can find, according to BBC.com. Fully 90 percent of all the onions grown in the U.S. and around the world are eaten in the more than 125 countries where they are grown. There is very little international trade in onions.
In the U.S. the growth of ethnic cuisines pickled onions have become a much more common condiment. “You see it in street tacos, in kim chi, in Indian cuisine and Mediterranean, of course,” the NOA’s Reddin says.
At Cafe Noir in New York’s TriBeCa district, executive chef Rebecca Weitzman says she has elevated her “gotta-have-a-darn-burger-on the menu” with a great new garnish created on a whim: “We make house spicy pickled red onions and one day we tossed some lightly in cornstarch and flash fried them,” she says.
“The pickle flavor comes through and the crispness keeps, as does the pretty reddish color.”
Specialty onions are also on the rise such as cipollini onions, a smaller flattish sweet onion that is ideal for roasting whole. Datassential’s Menutrends Database of Top Growing Produce items list reports that cipollinis’ presence on menus grew 14.4 percent in 2013-14.
“I love the sweetness of the cipollini onion, brought out by slow caramelization,” Adam Mali says.
The executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco serves Sherry-glazed caramelized cippolini onions with Brussels sprouts and pancetta to accompany roast goose and other rich entrees at Brasserie S&P in the hotel.
“When you caramelize cipollinis the texture also develops, with a pleasantly soft body, and a crunchy, almost bruleed surface at the cut face,” Mali says.
While he says the dish works with any local onion, such as spring or torpedo onions, cipollinis remain his favorite.
Meanwhile, the blue collar onion is being used everywhere across the planet in an array of dishes. In Denver Jim Pittenger uses more than 25 pounds of sliced yellow onions on a good day at his now-famous Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs on the city’s downtown 16th Street Mall. He cooks down Coca-Cola-soaked onions on a grill and tops his grilled jalapeno cheddar elk brats with the dark, sweet onions and a squirt of cream cheese .
“I use yellow onions. No need springing for nice Maui onions or Vidalias since they get cooked in Coke anyway,” Pittenger says. The dogs became so popular that the cart has spawned a brick-and-mortar location.
White onions are also experiencing some growth in use, NOA’s Reddin says, largely because they are called for specifically in a wide range of Mexican and Latin American dishes. The Database showed white onions growing 7.2 percent in 2013-14. (What topped the list of the top growing produce items? Kale, of course, followed by shisito peppers and sunchokes.)
Another key reason onions are finding their way into menu items across the country is that they boast a nutritional profile that is the envy of all the other produce items including the ubiquitous kale. Onions are fat-free, low calorie, low sodium, a good source of vitamin C and folic acid, contain dietary fiber and can support the body’s immune system.
School lunch programs across the nation are looking for new ways to put more fresh produce on the tray that kids will be eager to eat. Carrots, tomatoes, cole slaw and corn top the favorite vegetable list in his schools for kids, says Jason Morse, executive chef of the Douglas County School District in Colorado. Onions aren’t even on the list. but that doesn‘t stop Morse. He doesn’t think onions are too strong for kids’ palates, just that they’ve been incorrectly prepared. When it comes to onions, raw is wrong. “Everybody started putting raw onions on the salad bar or on burgers and the kids won’t eat them,” he says. You have to be a little sneaky and include the onions in dishes kids already like.
The menu also can‘t be chicken nuggets every Tuesday any more. “We’ve got to offer variety. Kids get bored pretty easy,” Morse says of the 20,000 to 30,000 children (out of about 67,000 students) he serves lunch to every school day.
Morse has developed several recipes including honey-stewed onions which he uses on the onion sausage pizza and balsamic veggie pizza. He also integrates onions into pasta sauces and Mexican items including salsa.
“My mission is to find new recipes and get the kids to try them. Down the road who knows? Maybe a French onion soup,” he says. It’s easier to try new things now, Norse explains. “The kids have tasted it already at Panera Bread Co.,” he says.
Reddin notes that the NOA is working on recipes for school lunch programs including a roast beef sandwich with onions and a kale and quinoa salad with chicken, apple and sautéed onions that can also be vegetarian.
Adding new onion flavors is getting easier for restaurants, caterers and school systems, Kim Reddin says, because processors are introducing convenient products. She points to the IQF roasted onions available from Dickinson Frozen Foods in Fruitland, Idaho.
Looking down the road, organically grown onions are gaining popularity based on the growth of Whole Foods Markets and other natural and mainstream merchandisers embracing organic produce sections. The National Onion Association doesn’t track sales of organic onions at this time.
A look at even just a sampling of fine dining and farm-to-table menus across the county shows that onion’s allium cousins are gaining notice including heirloom garlic varieties, ramps, garlic scapes and black garlic. Will they too make their way onto casual restaurant menus?
The onion future looks bright. Perhaps Julia Child, who was just honored on a U.S. postage stamp, put it best:
“It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions,” she said.
John Lehndorff is a Colorado-based food journalist and food radio host, and a former dining critic and award-winning newspaper and magazine food editor. He was the founding executive director of The American Pie Council. He writes the Nibbles food blog: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com
All about onions
– Onions were in the Pilgrim’s baggage on the Mayflower but they soon discovered that the longtime residents had been cooking and eating wild onions for a long time.
– Approximately 87 percent of the commercial onion crop in the U.S. is yellow onions, with 8 percent red onions and 5 percent white onions. An estimated 20 percent of onions are fresh-cut or processed for retail or foodservice. of 66.8 pounds.
– 20 pounds: The amount of onions the average American eats per year (versus more than 60 pounds or so annually for the average Libyan)
– “Onion Rings” have their own Facebook page that has been “liked” by more than 18,000 people
– Why you cry: Chopping onions creates Syn-propanethial-S-oxide which irritates your eyes
– Onions are the nation’s third largest fresh vegetable industry
– If you eat parsley after consuming raw onions your breath will be a little nicer (but you still probably shouldn’t kiss anyone)
– New York City was briefly known as The Big Onion
– The world’s oldest cookbook from Mesapotamia includes many references to onions, leeks, garlic and shallots.
– Sources: BBC; National Onion Association
Know your alliums
Garlic: Allium sativum
Onion: Allium cepa
Leek: Allium ampeloprasum
Chives: Allium schoenoprasum
Shallot: Allium cepa var. aggregatum
Caramelized Sherry-glazed Cipollini and Bussels Sprouts with Pancetta
Makes about 4 servings
About 12 cipollini onions
1 pound Brussels sprouts, cut in half vertically, limp leaves discarded (or fry them as a garnish)
4 to 5 slices pancetta (I used LaQuercia), roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup sherry
1/2 tablespoon sherry vinegar
kosher salt, to taste
1/2 cup panko or fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon finely minced Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest (Meyer lemon would be great too)
1) Render the pancetta fat in a saute pan on low heat. When the pancetta is crispy, remove bits and reserve. Use this pan to cook the onions as in the next step.
2) Cut stem, and peel cipollini onions and over low to medium heat in a saute pan, begin to caramelize whole in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir around in pan gently to produce an even color. Cook until nicely browned and softened. Add sherry wine, let it reduce all the way, then add vinegar. Season with kosher salt to taste.
3) Cut Brussels sprouts in half. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil, and blanch the sprouts for about 30 seconds. Remove from water, and place on dry towel. In another saute pan, cook Brussels sprouts in 1 tablespoon olive oil and half of the butter. Place in pan on medium heat face down, and check to see they are caramelized, but not getting burnt. Stir them around, and season with kosher salt.
4) In another pan, with the remaining butter, brown the bread crumbs until just golden. Cool, and mix with parsley and lemon zest.
5) To finish, toss onions, pancetta crisps, and Brussels sprouts together, and place on a serving plate. Sprinkle bread crumb mixture on top to garnish and serve.
6) For vegetarian diners, omit pancetta.
Source: Adam Mali, Executive Chef Mandarin Oriental San Francisco
National Onion Association: 970-353-5895; onions-usa.org