Cooking for One: Make friends with the shallot
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 11:28 AM
When I want to downscale a recipe, the sticking point, often enough, is an onion. I'll have half or even more of some big globe left, so I cover the cut side with aluminum foil and stick it in the fridge, where I of course forget about it until it is time to clean up the mush.
Eureka moments come in the most modest of places, and my onion problems ended once I started depending on shallots, the onion's refined cousin. And I'm not talking about their traditional uses in sauces and as a fried garnish. These days my onions are reserved for dinners I make for friends, or large-quantity dishes I'm planning to freeze or otherwise use for several meals. When I come home from a long workday and want to get some quick pasta sauce or stir-fry going, the first thing I do is throw shallots and garlic into shimmering olive oil.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my shallot dependency: They seem to be getting bigger, at least in the supermarket. And that defeats my purpose. I don't want leftover shallot any more than I want leftover onion.
At first I thought those behemoths at the Whole Foods Market on P Street might not be real shallots, which like garlic are grown from a bulb rather than a seed and form cloves. But when I contacted Whole Foods' global produce manager, Karen Christensen, she assured me that most of the companies' shallots are the Matador variety, grown by Coke Farm in California.
"The size of the shallots is mainly determined by the spacing in the field," Christensen wrote in an e-mail. "The wider the spacing the larger the shallot can grow." The Coke family grows shallots that range from 1 1/2 to 2 3/4 inches. "If you've seen an increase in shallot sizing, it may be just that your retailer has chosen to feature a larger size based on that retailer's preference."
Well, that must be it, because the ones I see at the Whole Foods on P Street get as long as 4 inches. When I look closer, or cut one open, I see that they often are two cloves in one, so I know they're not one of those shallot-poser species that Elizabeth Schneider writes about in "Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini," an indispensable guide to produce. Schneider advises looking for the real article, which you'll recognize by multiple cloves attached at the base, or by a pale scar at the bulb's base indicating it was separated.
Maybe it's my imagination, but when they're bigger, even the true shallots seem to have less shallot character: that melting texture and complex but delicate sweet flavor. I've been happiest with the ones I've found from local farmers. Kuhn Orchard at the 14th and U Market on Saturdays sells pint containers of gorgeous little orbs just perfect for my solo-cooking experiments.
In these (hopefully) last days of oppressive summer heat, one way I like to use them is in a ceviche. The shallots' mildness pairs well with sweet scallops, possibly my favorite seafood to turn into ceviche because I love the firm texture that results.
But I couldn't resist playing them up in a sauce, either. Rather than chopping them finely, I quick-braise them with a little thyme, water and the juices from a pan-fried pork chop, then melt in some blue cheese.
Leftovers and foil aside, the dish wouldn't be the same with an onion.