When buying root onions, look for firm, dry, weighty specimens, free of soft spots, oozing or soot (the last is actually mold). Do not buy onions that have started to sprout. Store root onions in a cool, dry, dark, well-ventilated spot. Placing them in a wire egg basket works well. The traditional way for storing "gourmet" onions, such as Vidalias, is knotted in a woman's stocking.
When buying scallions, leeks and other green onions, look for springy green tops and creamy white bases. Green onions should be stored in the vegetable bin in the refrigerator. To prolong their shelf life, loosely wrap them in a damp paper towel and store in an unsealed plastic bag. (Moisten the paper towel as needed. Don't seal the bag, or the onions will start to smell musty.)
The first step in most recipes using onions is to chop them. Cut the onion in half lengthwise (from tip to tip). Cut off the pointy end and pull back the skin, leaving the furry root end intact. Lay the onion, cut-side down, on the cutting board. Make a series of closely spaced longitudinal cuts, using the root as a handle. Finally, slice the onion widthwise and it will crumble into a fine dice.
To chop onions in the food processor, peel the onions and cut into quarters (or eighths, if the onions are large). Do not fill the chopping bowl more than one-third of the way. Run the machine in short bursts, just until the onion is chopped. Over-processing will reduce the onions to a malodorous mush. To reduce the potency of chopped onions for garnishing caviar or gazpacho, rinse them under cold running water.
This brings us to the subject of lachrymators and a tearful subject it is. Lachrymators are sulfur-based compounds found in onion juices. They are activated when the onion is cut, pounded, or otherwise exposed to air. When onion fumes mix with the saline solution in the eye, they form sulfuric acid, which is what makes people cry.
The lachrymose properties of onions have lead to no end of ingenuity and gadgetry for chopping them without tears. Tips range from chilling the onions (which supposedly slows down the chemical reaction) to chopping them underwater (which leads to cut fingers) to wearing skin-diving goggles while chopping them (which makes the cook look silly.)
My own solution is to hold a piece of bread in my mouth while chopping the onions. The porous bread absorbs the onion fumes (or so I hypothesize). Or perhaps it's simply that I'm trying so hard not to gag on the bread that I forget all about the fumes. This method also makes the cook look ridiculous, but it definitely works.
SCALLION SALAD (4 servings)
This Lebanese salad can be made with scallions or green onions. You might think it would leave you with bad breath, but the parsley acts as natural mouthwash. Sumac is a purplish berry with a tart, lemony taste. Ground sumac can be found at Middle Eastern and Armenian markets. If unavailable, use more lemon juice.
2 bunches scallions
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
1 clove garlic
3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (or to taste)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sumac (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Finely chop the scallions, discarding the roots. Finely chop the parsley, discarding the stems. Mince the garlic.
Combine the scallions, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, sumac, salt and pepper in a bowl and toss well. Correct the seasoning, adding salt or lemon juice to taste (the salad should be highly seasoned). Serve with wedges of pita bread.
Per serving: 102 calories, .7 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 mg sodium.
SALADA DE CEBOLA (Brazilian Onion Salad) (4 servings)
Here's a salad for onion lovers. When they are in season, use a sweet onion such as Vidalia, Maui or Walla Walla; otherwise use a mild onion such as Bermuda. The soaking helps neutralize the tear-producing chemicals found to a greater or lesser degree in all onions.
2 large onions (2 cups sliced)
1 cup ice cubes
1/4 cup vinaigrette sauce (see below)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Peel the onions and thinly slice. Separate the slices into rings. Place the onions in a shallow bowl with the ice cubes and cold water to cover. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Prepare the vinaigrette.
Drain the onions and rinse under cold water. Drain thoroughly and blot dry. Arrange the onions in a shallow bowl and toss with vinaigrette. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.
Per serving: 109 calories, 1 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, .4 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 mg sodium.
VINAIGRETTE SAUCE (Makes about 6 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
Place the mustard in a bowl and whisk in the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Whisk in the oil in a thin stream. The sauce should emulsify.
Correct the seasoning, adding salt, pepper or lemon juice to taste.
Per tablespoon: 81 calories, .1 gm protein, .4 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 mg sodium.
PICKLED ONIONS (Makes 1 1/2 cups)
Pickled onions are a popular table sauce in Central America. You could also use pearl onions to make pickled onions for cocktails.
2 large white onions (about 2 cups sliced)
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 bay leaf
1 to 2 dried hot chilies
1 clove garlic, peeled
Peel the onions and thickly slice. Place the onions in a nonaluminum bowl with the remaining ingredients.
Let the onions marinate at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, then refrigerate until used.
Per serving: 51 calories, 2 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, .4 gm fat, .1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 382 mg sodium.
SIX-ONION PIE WITH SMOKED CHEESE (8 servings)
This dish is derived from French flamiche, a leek pie garnished with a malodorous cheese called maroilles. My version calls for a smoked cheese, like smoked mozzarella or Bruder Basil. It is currently in vogue to give dishes alpha-numeric names, such as three-chocolate cake or five-peppercorn steak. Serve this pie as an appetizer or for brunch with a fruity Alsatian Riesling.
10-inch prebaked pie shell
FOR THE FILLING:
1 bunch scallions
2 yellow onions
2 white onions
2 large shallots
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, to taste
8 ounces smoked mozzarella, or other smoked cheese, cut into 1/4-inch slices
Trim, wash and finely chop the leeks. Trim and chop the scallions. Finely chop the onions and shallots. Mince the garlic and parsley.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Add the parsley, seasonings and cream, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the cream is completely absorbed by the onion mixture. Add salt and pepper as necessary (the mixture should be highly seasoned).
Let the filling cool slightly and spoon it into the tart shell. Arrange the cheese slices on top around the edge of the tart, leaving the center open.
Bake the pie in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the edge of the crust is browned and the cheese is bubbly. Cool slightly before serving.
Per serving: 315 calories, 9 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 302 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a freelance food writer and has a cooking school at the Snowvillage Inn in Snowville, N.H.