Ode to Onions: The Healthy Golden Bulb that Fires Up Winter Cuisine

Oh, they do make me cry! But onions are loaded with so much goodness, the tears I shed upon peeling them are tears of joy. Like my grandma, I am always singing the praises of onions, the best vegetable for taking the chill out of winter dining, warding off cold weather illness, treating everyday ailments, and keeping the body in good working order.

I believe that onions are a most versatile vegetable, and a staple no kitchen should ever be without. Almost every savoury recipe needs a touch of onion to give it a little extra depth and flavour.
Grandma, who was a well-respected herbalist in the rural woods where I grew up, said that increasing one’s intake of onions boosts the immune system­­ – a healthy bonus during cold weather months. According to her teachings, raw onions aid digestion and flush impurities from the system.

In her handwritten doctoring journals, grandma recorded many Old World onion-based remedies for cold and flu, bronchitis, fever, poor circulation, and aching joints, as well as preventive remedies for osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and even various cancers. I still rely on many of her trusty remedies, which is why I keep lots of onions close at hand.

Every fall I put a huge stash of cooking onions in my root cellar. Whenever my vegetable crisper is running low on fresh, store-bought vegetables, I simply turn to onions to fill the bill as the salad course or the main vegetable event for the day. Or I’ll work them into a tasty dish that can stand alone as a full meal.

For those who don’t grow a huge patch of onions in the backyard garden, as my grandparents did, it’s easy and economical to buy a bushel of locally grown onions at the farmer’s market and stow them for safekeeping. If you don’t have a root cellar, simply store them in a cool, dry place. They will keep for months. I store mine in airy wicker baskets and burlap sacks, which allow them to breathe.

In the recipes that follow, I’m talking about common cooking onions – the ones with yellow skins, firm flesh, and hot, pungent flavour and aroma. These are the ones that make your eyes and mouth water at the same time!

While Spanish, red, Vidalia, Walla Walla, or other larger onions belonging to the allium cepa family (of which there are over 300 species) can be used in any of the recipes below, I prefer to use locally grown cooking onions, which are more potent than the sweet red- or white-fleshed ones mentioned above. They are the best to use for medicinal purposes, and are less expensive than the specialized and imported types.

So now it’s time to shed a few happy tears for onions. Below are some of grandma’s old remedies, plus a few of my favourite ways to enjoy onions at the table.

Ode to Onions

Onion cough syrup soothes a raspy throat and breaks up phlegm

Like they say, “tastes awful, but it works!” Really, though, my tastebuds are tickled by this strange concoction that quickly soothes a raspy throat and breaks up phlegm.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large onion
  • 3 Tbsp liquid honey
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary

1) Finely grate 1 large onion using a hand grater. Put onion into a small jar and add 3 tablespoons of liquid honey. Mix well.

2) Now “spike the syrup” by pushing 3 sprigs of fresh rosemary down into the honey. (This is why I, like grandma, keep a huge pot of rosemary on my windowsill for cooking and medicinal purposes all winter long.) If you don’t have a window herb garden, buy fresh rosemary at the grocery store.

3) Let syrup stand overnight at room temperature in order for the onion mixture to draw the essential oil out of the herb.

4) Take 1 teaspoonful as needed.

Ode to Onions

Stuffed baked onions are a hot and savoury dish for a cold winter’s eve

Here’s a savoury vegetable dish that always earns big raves at my table. (Serves 4.)

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium onions
  • 1/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 Tbsps minced walnuts or other nuts or seeds of choice (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sprig of rosemary
  • Grated parmesan
  • 3 Tbsps red wine

1) Peel 4 onions (or however many you need to go around).

2) Stick a wooden skewer through their middles to hold together and set in a pot of boiling water.

3) Boil 5 minutes. Remove from water and cool.

4) Take out the skewer. Pop or cut out the centres of the onions, being careful not to break the outer layers.

5) Chop the centres and mix with bread crumbs, minced walnuts or other nuts or seeds of choice (optional), salt and pepper to taste.

6) Mix well and stuff into onions.

7) Stand upright in individual earthen baking dishes, top with a sprig of fresh rosemary, sprinkle with grated parmesan, add red wine, cover and bake 350F for 15 minutes or until onion is tender but not falling apart.

Ode to Onions

Steeped Onion Salad helps the body digest heavy, fatty foods

This is good for helping the body digest heavy or fatty foods.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium onions
  • 1/2 cup unpasteurized apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • pinch of celery or sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • A few sprigs of fresh herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, rosemary)
  • Honey
  • Crusty bread (optional)

1) Slice 3 medium onions into thin rings and place in a small glass bowl.

2) Put 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar (both are equally delicious) into a small saucepan along with water, olive oil, celery or sea salt (can be omitted if on a salt-free diet), black pepper, a few sprigs of fresh minced mixed herbs and enough honey to sweeten. Bring to a boil, pour over onions, cover and steep until cool.

3) Divvy the onion rings up into small bowls, leaving the vinegar solution behind. Serve as a salad side dish or with crusty bread for a quick appetizer.

4) Note: the fragrant, sweet vinegar solution can be saved in a capped jar in fridge and used in regular salad dressings or marinades rather than disposed of.

In my view, this tea is one of the best cold cures there is. It relieves headache and stuffiness, and as grandma has written, helps one “sweat out the cold.”

Ingredients:

  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 1 drop each of lemon and honey (optional)
  • 1 pinch of black pepper and 1 drop each of soy sauce and sesame oil (optional)

1) Fill a medium-sized tea ball with one small chopped onion. If you don’t have a tea ball, put onion directly into a small teapot.

2) Cover with 1 cup boiling water and steep 5 minutes.

3) Pour into teacup and drink while inhaling the vapours. It’ll make you feel warm all over. Serve with a spoon and eat the dregs for good measure.

4) You can add a touch of lemon and honey to sweeten. Or to make what grandma called “cure a cold soup,” add a pinch of black pepper and a drop each of soy sauce and sesame oil to the cup.

Grandma vouched that this tonic would get your “blood moving.”  She has also noted it brings fast relief if you’re suffering from a bout of gout.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup onion skins
  • 2 or 3 layers of onion peels

1) Put 1 cup washed onion skins and two or three layers of outer peels into small teapot.

2) Add 1 cup boiling water.

3) Cover, steep until all the goodness has been leached from the skins.

4) Strain and drink while hot.

This onion poultice breaks up congestion and stimulates the body to fight off viruses. It can also be applied to relieve pain caused by rheumatism, arthritis, aching muscles, and sore joints. For earache, place hot poultice over the ear. To draw pus from a sore, or to treat a boil, put a mash of raw onion onto the wound, cover with clean cloth and let onion draw out the infection.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large onion
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 flannel square

1) Chop a large onion; put into a skillet with a spoonful of olive oil and fry until limp.

2) Place hot onion in centre of a square of flannel, which holds the heat better than any other fabric. Fold up securely.

3) To treat congestion caused by cold and flu, place hot poultice on patient’s chest.

If you wish to steer clear of insect repellents that contain chemicals such as DEET, why not give this ancient remedy a try? It works, and is easier on sensitive skin than commercial preparations. It’s safe for kids, too.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large onions
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 plastic squirt bottle

1) To make onion fly dope, puree 2 large onions in blender or food processor.

2) Mix with 1/4 cup olive oil. Don’t use perfumed oil as it appeals to bugs instead of repelling them.

3) Put into a plastic squirt bottle. It is now ready to use as you would use commercial fly dope, avoiding contact with eyes.

4) To follow grandma’s indication for taking the sting out of bug bites, rub with a piece of raw onion. This is good for burns, too, since onion acts as an antiseptic.

At grandma’s house, these were often served as a quick lunch either on fresh or toasted homemade bread. Grandma used homemade butter as her spread.

Ingredients:

  • 1 onion
  • Organic cow or goat butter
  • 1 pinch black pepper

1) Slice onion paper-thin, place on bread and sprinkle with black pepper. Cut and serve.

2) Tip: for an exciting new twist to the old grilled cheese sandwich, top the cheese with a layer of thinly sliced raw onions.

I have tweaked grandma’s old recipe a little, using olive oil in place of pure butter. (Makes about 6 servings.)

Ingredients:

  • 4 Tbsps olive oil
  • 6 peeled onions
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • Pinch dried basil
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 5 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup red wine
  • Crusty bread
  • Swiss, mozzarella or other white cheese
  • 1 pinch grated parmesan

1) Warm olive oil in a Dutch oven or heavy soup pot.

2) Cut onions in half crosswise and slice thinly.

3) Put onions, garlic cloves, basil, and black pepper into the pot. Cover pan, cook over medium heat about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4) Remove lid and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until onions turn golden.

5) Slowly add vegetable stock (I use homemade stock but you can use ready made stock of choice) and red wine. Simmer until soup is thick, about 40 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

6) Ladle into oven-proof onion soup bowls, top each with a round of crusty bread, and sprinkle grated Swiss, mozzarella or other white cheese and a pinch of grated parmesan overtop. Set bowls in oven under broiler and broil until cheese is bubbling and golden.

This can fill the bill as a supper feature when served with a crispy green salad or a bowl of soup or leftover stew.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1/4 tsp salt (optional)
  • 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 envelope (1-1/2 tsp) active dry yeast
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (or gluten-free alternative)
  • 2 cups thinly sliced onions
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 Tbsp fresh minced mixed herbs of choice
  • Grated parmesan cheese

1) Put 1 cup warm water into a bowl. Add salt (optional) and olive oil.

2) Mix well, sprinkle with 1 envelope active dry yeast.

3) Let stand 10 minutes.

4) Slowly beat in 1 cup of whole wheat flour. You can use gluten-free flour mix, if desired, adding a little more as needed. When smooth, add another 1 to 2 cups of flour, beating until bread consistency.

5) Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Form into a ball, place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch down. Turn onto lightly greased 12-inch pizza pan and pat into a circle.

6) Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk.

7) Meanwhile, in skillet sauté onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil until onion is golden.

8) Add 2 tablespoons fresh minced mixed herbs (basil, thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, or dried crushed herbs to taste if fresh aren’t available).

9) Spread over dough and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese. Bake in 425F oven for 15 minutes or until puffed and golden. Slice into wedges and serve.

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