The Case for Pickled Onions


Holly A. Heyser

Okay, anyone who has read this space for very long should know that onions or garlic in some form or another appear in pretty much every recipe I create. I love onions. I love growing them, I love eating them, and I especially love finding them wild.

Whether we're talking wild ramps, which don't grow here in California, the skinny field garlics, delicate French shallots, stately leeks, or those bawdy sweet onions—so luscious they tempt you to eat them raw, like an apple—I love them all. I sure hope the allium clan is good for you, because I probably consume close to 75 heads of garlic and 100 pounds of onions a year.

My onion year starts with the long-storing, humble yellow onion. A sulphurous bitch she is, but despite making me cry on a routine basis I adore her anyway. Call me Tammy Wynette. In return, however, she is a constant companion, rarely spoiling and willing to help me make scores of recipes that much better.

Now, pickling onions, garlics, and ramps is not the same thing as carrying around a faded picture of a lost love in your wallet.

Since I live in California, Fraulein Yellow must contend with a nubile competitor: the winter green onion. I grow several slender varieties that last all winter long, but my favorite is a Japanese onion that never sets a bulb. It is sweet for a scallion, and using it in a hearty winter dish makes me think of spring, when everything is young and green. The regal leek also persists through my winters, but she is aloof and yearns only to be included in classical French dishes. Leeks are the ladies who lunch.

Spring brings the garlic chives, regular chives, and bunching onions. I revel in this rave of green alliums from March to May, and the hits of that party are our local green garlics and the fresh young ramps I get from back east.

By late May, the first gigantic sweet onions burst on the scene. Stockton Sweets and Vidalias, and for those of you who live around Sacramento, the epic Placer Sweets. These are sweet onions so large that just one will make an entire serving of caramelized onions for a family; they're like that big girl who has all the curves in all the places she oughta. The Germans have a term that applies perfectly to both: zaftig.

Summer brings the new garlic, that garlic that is fully separated into bulbs, but the sheaths around them are still supple, the cloves still loaded with moisture. This is the time to gorge yourself on garlic, when its bite is tamed with an almost floral follow-up. Make your 40-clove chicken recipe in early June, folks, and you'll understand why it's a classic.

Green onions of all shapes and varieties abound all the way to the cold weather, in November. That's when we all fall in love again with Fraulein Yellow. She waits for you to return, knowing you always will.

This is my year. So why, you might ask, would I ever need to hold onto any of my allium loves longer than during the times when they are fresh and bright? I suspect part of it is because, like all people, we want most what we can no longer have. So I pickle my onions. In fact, I pickle quite a lot of onions.

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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