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The Farmer and the Foodie: Open up to onions

Mar./Apr. 2011 California Country magazine

Glen Ikeda, the farmer, and Gwen Schoen, the foodie, discuss onions.



Farmer: There are more than 50 varieties of yellow onions grown in California. We also grow red and white. They range in flavor from sweet to quite hot and pungent.


The farmer: Glen Ikeda grows fruit on 40 acres in Auburn with his brother, Steve. They also manage their family's markets in Auburn and Davis (www.ikedas.com). The foodie: For food writer Gwen Schoen, food is about anticipating and celebrating the seasons.

Foodie: Is it my imagination or do spring onions taste sweeter and make me cry less than winter onions?    

Farmer: The onions you find in markets in the spring and summer are fresh onions. They tend to have a higher sugar and water content than storage onions, so they are sweeter in flavor and probably do make you cry less when you slice them. Sweet onions are harvested May through July. Harvest begins in the Imperial Valley and moves up to the San Joaquin Valley as the weather warms up. The hotter varieties, those we generally call storage onions, are harvested August through October.

Foodie: Is there a difference in flavor between red and yellow or white onions?

Farmer: Red varieties tend to be milder and a bit sweeter, but there are always exceptions. The red Torpedo isn't as sweet. It's not great for eating raw, but it has a lot of pungent flavor and it's good for cooking in soups and stews. If you want a sweet yellow onion, try the Calibra and in early spring the Imperial variety is best known for its large size and sweet flavor.

Foodie: What about the tears?

Farmer: Except for wearing goggles, refrigerating the onions before cutting will help with the tears. Also make sure you use a sharp knife. A sharp knife does less damage to the onion, which prevents it from releasing the gas that causes tears.

Foodie: It seems as though spring onions don't store as long as winter onions. What's the best way to store them?

Farmer: Because sweet onions are high in water and sugar content, they bruise easily. Treat them gently and store them in the refrigerator. They should last for a month or more.

Foodie: Large spring onions are great for stuffing. Another way to enjoy them is to cook them slowly in butter until they caramelize. Just cut the peeled onions into thick slices and place them in a skillet over low heat. Add butter and cook slowly until they turn a dark brown color. This slow cooking brings out the sugar in the onions and turns them crunchy.

Farmer: Personally, I like a sweet red onion. I like to brush them with a little olive oil and grill them lightly until they are just a bit soft. This brings out the sugars and makes them great on a hamburger. They are also perfect for salsa.

Spinach: Year-round, guilt-free

While fresh spinach is available all year in California, it is springtime when foodies begin dreaming of fresh salads made with tender spinach leaves.

Fresh spinach doesn't last long once it's purchased, so plan to use it within a few days and store it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator to keep it fresh longer.

With bulk spinach, the challenge is to remove the gritty soil that clings to the stems and roots. The easiest way to wash it is to fill a sink with cool water, then plunge the spinach up and down in the water. If the leaves are still gritty, change the water and plunge them again.

Because spinach shrinks about 90 percent when cooked, figure about 1/2 pound of fresh spinach per serving. To steam spinach, place the washed and wet leaves in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. The spinach has enough natural moisture for it to steam without adding water, but you can add a little to the bottom of the pan if you like. Place the pan over moderate heat for three to five minutes, drain and serve immediately. Red wine or malt vinegar makes a wonderful dressing for steamed spinach and adds no calories.

Spinach is a powerhouse of vitamins A and C. It is also high in iron, but some nutrition studies show that the oxalic acid in spinach inhibits the body's absorption of calcium and iron. However, in a one-cup serving, there are only 7 calories, so this is a completely guilt-free food.

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