No Scallions? No Problem.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Wonderful as it is to eat only what's in season, there are some vegetables that a cook always likes to have on hand, and the scallion is one of them. Whenever a dish looks or tastes a little bland, all you need to do is grab a scallion and a pair of scissors and snip away, letting the pieces cascade over the surface. Your creation will instantly look fresh and appetizing, whether it's a salad, a stir-fry, a bowl of chili or borscht.
To grow scallions properly, though, it's best to sow them in cool weather, when the soil is about 50 degrees. They don't relish heat, so if you haven't started any for your summer garden, you'll have to wait until the season starts to moderate a bit, then plant them as a fall or winter crop. In the meantime, this means no scallions to put in summer salsas or to scatter over that boring, oh-so-white potato salad.
I find that by broadening the definition of the scallion, I can extend its season. Strictly speaking, a scallion, often called a bunching onion, is an onion that never forms a bulb at the end but remains straight and slender from top to bottom -- like a leek, only tiny. (Botanically it's a distinct species, Allium fistulosum.) But you can get those slender, long green-oniony leaves from any plant that is, at the moment, exhibiting scalliony behavior.
Viewed this way, scallion season might start with the onion bin at winter's end, when your storage onions have reached the end of their shelf life. The bulbs have softened and are sending out long shoots from the tops. These are a bit firmer than classic scallion foliage but just as good to eat. If they're pale from having begun life in darkness, just set them on a sunny windowsill and they'll green right up in a day or so. In the old days, these sprouts were often the only green thing to eat before spring crops started to bear.
Regular bulbing onions, on their way to maturity, can always have their tops robbed prematurely at those times when scallions are a necessity. Sometimes bulbing onions don't ever get around to bulbing at all. Don't call them a crop failure. Call them scallions.
Perhaps you intended to plant bulb onions and never got around to it. Visit the garden center and see if there are any leftover onion sets, those tiny dry bulbs that turn into big bulbs at summer's end. Plant them now. They'll be more heat-tolerant than the seed-sown types, and if you keep them watered they should at least yield some green tops. Steal a few tops from your garlic and shallots while you're at it. And when the chives get fat and mature in summer, they'll be almost scallionlike, too, or at least a good enough imitation to tide you over until cool, scallion-planting weather returns.