The onion – Leaf to root

The onion – Leaf to root

It seems like spring has sprung

We only really think about onions as vegetables that we keep for future use, but did you know that they can also be a source of fresh greens in the winter? And the skins can also be useful.

Just let them sprout

When you take off the lid of the onion pot, you find all your onions have sprouted. You left them for too long and while you were away they decided it was spring. Please don't throw them away: you can eat the green sprouts. Cut them finely and they are delicious in soups. I also sometime use them when I don't have any leeks.

When I was travelling around for my "Leaf to Root" campaign finding out about how to use the parts of vegetables that are often discarded, I even discovered that in the past, during the winter, people specifically made use of the fact that onions sprout.  In those days fresh greens were not yet available all year round, so people put their onions in a clay hanging basket with holes in it. The green shoots then grew out of these holes, and were "harvested" as required.

A discarded piece of onion will even sprout if you let it. Here's an experiment you can try at home: Cut off a slice of onion from the bottom, leaving the roots attached, and plant it in some soil with the roots down. Keep it moist and after only a few days you will see green shoots growing out of the side that was cut. If you wait long enough they can grow to over 10 cm. This just shows that you can grow "fresh" vegetables even if you don't have a garden.

Delicious instead of leeks or blended into oil


This is something I learnt from talented young Gault Millau-rated chef Karim Schumann at Mann & Co. in Davos, who even has onions sprouting in the middle of his restaurant. He lets them sprout, and then blends them into oil, simply mixing 100 g of the green shoots with salt and 100 ml oil, then sieving the mixture. It is the perfect addition to pasta dishes or even salads, and of course you can also make oil in this way if your onions sprout by accident rather than on purpose – as I described above.

Skins provide flavour and shine

What remains of the onion is always the skin. A classic use for it is to boil it up in a stock. But the skins can also be charred and turned into powder which in turn lends a dish flavour and a finishing touch.

And if you should still have onion skins left over: simply collect them throughout the year and keep them until next Easter. Because an Easter egg coloured with onion skins is still the prettiest, even if it’s just brown.

From pungent to fruity

Special heritage varieties from ProSpecieRara

This variety is called "rouge de Genève" and something of a prime specimen for ProSpecieRara. It is red and round but flat, not spherical. From the point of view of the Swiss organization founded to preserve different species, it is the epitome of onion diversity. ProSpecieRara stores the seeds not only of landraces – local varieties that have been preserved by farmers selecting and keeping their seeds over the years – but also of newer varieties.

The differences between onions

According to Philipp Holzherr of ProSpecieRara, traditional varieties are not always better, but "onions can differ widely in taste, so it is worth maintaining diversity." The main criteria for assessing the qualities of an onion are sweetness, pungency, taste, firmness and water content. The most important of these is sweetness – which is measured using the Brix scale. If the Brix reading is high then the onions are also well suited to storing. Holzherr says that most newer onion varieties tend to be sweet as that is what the majority of consumers prefer, and that the traditional varieties include both sweet onions and rather bland ones.

The evolution of pungency

Pungency can also vary significantly between onions. It is probably linked to the speed at which the plants grow, and if the variety has a long ripening period – often the case with older varieties – then the onion has more time to develop its pungency. "That is one of the reasons why modern varieties are seldom extremely pungent," says Holzherr, "while the traditional varieties encompass everything from mild to very pungent." Some of the pungency disappears during cooking, but Holzherr says, "I've come to the conclusion that when cooked, very pungent onions develop a more intensive flavour than mild onions – but that's my subjective opinion." In general it is believed that long growing times result not just in greater pungency, but also in a tendency for the onion to have a stronger flavour. The vegetable expert talks about grassy, bitter, slightly fruity and spicy flavour notes, and concludes that, "there are some exciting, flavoursome traditional varieties, but equally some of these varieties are bland or don't taste good."

Nevertheless, it's worthwhile holding on to varieties which may not appear very interesting at first glance because you never know what hidden characteristics they might have and whether or not they might regain popularity in the future. One thing is certain: onions are eye-watering, mouth-watering and much, much more.

In Kooperation mit: 

Esther – Leaf to Root
Esther – Leaf to Root
The food journalist loves to experiment with all parts of the vegetable.

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