Know your onions

JAN BILTON
Last updated 14:33 19/06/2014
shallots
JAN BILTON

FULL OF FLAVOUR: Braised banana shallots and leeks with a red wine vinegar glaze.

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Although they're members of the lily family, leeks, onions and shallots have characteristics that make them more distant cousins than siblings.

Records show that the Roman emperor Nero regularly ate leeks, because he believed they were good for his vocal cords. He was nicknamed Porrophagus, or "leek mouth", and the reference probably didn't have anything to do with his singing.

The leek has been the national emblem of Wales since 640, when, according to legend, the Welsh wore leeks on their hats for identification during a battle with invading Saxons - and won.

Leeks, which look like giant spring onions, have a mild flavour and are the base for many soups and stews.

Shallots are diminutive onion-like bulbs that have a more refined flavour than onions and are also less sulphurous. They are now widely available - and recently, a new variety has made it on to supermarket shelves.

This is the torpedo-shaped banana shallot, which is longer and perhaps a little milder than traditional varieties.

Shallots are great in casseroles and slow cookers because, unlike onions, they don't require initial sauteing to rid them of any raw flavour.

Shallots grow in clusters and are joined by a common root end. Some are bulbous and composed of three or more segments under their coppery skin; others are slimmer, with just two divisions. The shallots used in Asian cooking are generally much smaller than the varieties grown here.

There's hardly a savoury dish that doesn't call for an onion.

In ancient times, people believed onions were a symbol of eternity because of the concentric circles that make up the internal structure. This is also the reason that onion-shaped towers were popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, because it was thought that these buildings would stand forever.

Brown-skinned onions are our most popular variety, and come on strong.

However, the market for sweet onions - especially those with white skin and flesh - has grown rapidly.

They are excellent raw in salads and hamburgers.

Red onions are also mild, sweet and juicy, and are great both raw or when used for cooking.

BRAISED BANANA SHALLOTS & LEEKS WITH A RED WINE VINEGAR GLAZE

6-8 banana shallots
1 large leek
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground back pepper to taste
cup red wine vinegar
cup caster sugar
Rosemary sprigs to garnish

Peel and top and tail the shallots. Wash the leek well and cut the white end into 3cm rounds.

Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add the shallots and leek. Season. Cover and cook over a low heat for 5 minutes. Turn the vegetables over and continue to cook for about 10 minutes, until tender.

Meanwhile, bring the red wine vinegar and sugar to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer until slightly thickened. Pour over the shallots and leek and garnish. Serves 4.

LEEK, CHEESE & BACON TART

500g(about 2 medium) leeks
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
3 middle rashers of rindless bacon, chopped
1 sheets ready-rolled flaky pastry
120g soft goat's cheese or soft herbed cheese
70g gruyere or emmenthal cheese, shredded
1 Tbsp chopped thyme or rosemary leaves

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Preheat the oven to 100 degrees Celsius. Lightly oil a baking tray.

Wash the leeks well and thinly slice them. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan. Saute the leeks over a medium-low heat, until softened. Set aside.

Saute the bacon until almost cooked. Drain on paper towels.

Join the two sheets of pastry by overlapping two edges slightly and pressing together well to make a long strip of pastry. Place on the baking tray. Spread with the soft cheese to within 2.5cm of the edges. Dot the leeks, bacon and shredded cheese on top. Sprinkle with the herbs. Turn the pastry edges over the filling slightly to form a rim.

Bake for 20 minutes, until golden. Serves 4.

HOT FETA WITH SHALLOTS & HERBS

200g feta cheese
3-4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 banana shallot, diced
2 tsp each: rosemary leaves, thyme leaves
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the feta in a shallow baking dish and sprinkle with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, shallot, rosemary, herbs and black pepper.

Bake for about 10 minutes, until the cheese starts to melt. Serve with crusty bread as a nibble. Serves 4.

CARAMELISED ONION & RED PEPPER FETTUCCINE

2 Tbsp each: butter, extra virgin olive oil
700g onions, thinly sliced
680g jar roasted red peppers
4 Tbsp jalapeno peppers (from a jar), drained
1 cup good chicken stock
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp caraway seeds
400g fresh fettuccine
cup shaved parmesan cheese

Melt half the butter with the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute until tender and caramelised (about 20 minutes).

Drain the red peppers, pat dry and cut into strips. Add to the onions and saute for 2 minutes.

Add the jalapenos, chicken stock, balsamic vinegar and caraway seeds. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce reduces slightly (about 5 minutes). Whisk in the remaining butter.

Meanwhile, cook the fettuccine according to the packet instructions. Drain and return to the saucepan. Add the onion and red pepper sauce and toss to coat.

Transfer to serving bowls. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and serve. Serves 4.

- The Marlborough Express

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