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Cooking Across Cultures: Global Inspiration from Your Local CSA

June 26, 2024

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Cooking Across Cultures: Global Inspiration from Your Local CSA

Unlocking the Wonders of the Onion Universe

I can still vividly recall the first time I laid eyes on that magnificent onion at my friend Shannon’s house. It was the size of a grapefruit, pale yellow, and tapered at the top, with a thin, papery sheath covering its surface. When Shannon sliced into it, the onion nearly burst with a sweet, spicy juice that had me utterly entranced.

That day, it dawned on me just how much I had been taking these humble bulbs for granted. Sure, I could name a dozen different heirloom tomatoes or apples that I’d sought out over the years. But when it came to onions – the backbone of so many global cuisines – my knowledge was woefully lacking.

As I stood in Andy Szymanowicz’s greenhouse, surrounded by thousands of onions caked in dirt, the farmer’s words echoed in my mind: “Onions aren’t easy.” It was a revelation that would forever change the way I approached this most versatile of vegetables.

Unraveling the Onion’s Secrets

Szymanowicz went on to explain the intricacies of onion cultivation – the different varieties he grows, the shifting seasons, and the careful curing process required for long-term storage. It was a far cry from the uniform, two-pound bags I’d grown accustomed to seeing in the supermarket.

As Saveur magazine has explored, onions are the most versatile and inspiring vegetables in our kitchens, containing a complex mix of sugars and aromatic compounds that transform dramatically in the face of heat, air, and other elements.

From the sharp, pungent raw onions that provide a bright foil to spicy dishes, to the luscious, caramelized versions that lend a savory depth to soups and risottos, these humble bulbs are the unsung heroes of global cuisine. And the differences in flavor and texture can be traced back to the very soil in which they’re grown.

Onions Around the World

As I delved deeper into the world of onions, I was struck by the myriad ways cooks across cultures have harnessed their versatility. In my own Italian-American upbringing, dinner always began with onions and garlic sweating in olive oil, laying the foundation for countless dishes.

But venture beyond the Mediterranean, and the onion’s role becomes even more fascinating. In Southeast Asia, cooks might start a curry by slowly cooking a spice paste made with fragrant shallots. In Morocco, the aromatic onions of a tagine mingle with saffron, chicken, olives, and lemons. And in Punjabi cuisine, raw onion slices offer a refreshing counterpoint to the spicy stewed foods.

As Linda Shiue, a physician, chef, and author of the cookbook “Spicebox Kitchen,” has shared, the best way to get to know a culture is often to “sit down and break bread or roti or a bowl of rice or noodles with the locals.” And in doing so, the onion invariably emerges as a common thread, woven into the fabric of cuisines around the globe.

Cultivating Connections Through Cooking

My own culinary journey has been shaped by a deep curiosity about the people and cultures behind the food I encounter. Whether it’s learning to make authentic Oaxacan mole in Mexico or mastering the art of baking macarons in Paris, each new experience has broadened my understanding of the world and the role that food plays in bringing us together.

That’s why I’m so excited to share the wealth of inspiration that can be found right in your own community-supported agriculture (CSA) box. By exploring the diverse origins and preparations of the humble onion, we can embark on a culinary adventure that transcends borders and connects us to communities near and far.

Onions Across Cultures: A Global Feast

So, let’s dive in and discover the world through the lens of the onion, shall we? Whether you’re a longtime CSA member or just dipping your toes into the world of locally sourced produce, I guarantee you’ll be surprised and delighted by the possibilities that await.

The Onion’s Global Odyssey

From the sweet, mild Vidalias of Georgia to the sharp, pungent red onions of New York’s Hudson Valley, each region has its own unique onion varieties, each with their own distinct terroir. As Saveur explains, the onion’s flavor is largely determined by the sulfur content of the soil in which it’s grown, which is why some regions produce sweeter or milder onions than others.

These regional differences have, in turn, given rise to a wealth of culinary traditions around the world. In France, the onion is the foundation of the classic mirepoix, a flavor base of onions, celery, and carrots. In Cajun cuisine, the “holy trinity” of onions, bell peppers, and celery lays the groundwork for countless stews and sauces.

And let’s not forget the beloved onion rings, a global phenomenon that takes on all sorts of delicious iterations, from the crisp, golden-brown versions found in American diners to the sweet, caramelized shallot crisps that adorn Indonesian dishes.

Onions in the Kitchen: Transformative Potential

But the onion’s true power lies in its ability to transform, whether through caramelization, pickling, or simple sautéing. As Saveur’s Dana Bowen eloquently describes, the process of sweating onions in fat and then adding dry spices is a technique shared by cooks across the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and beyond, laying the foundation for countless flavorful dishes.

And then there’s the art of caramelization, where those sharp, raw onions are cooked low and slow until they develop a rich, velvety sweetness. I can still recall the pleasure of standing at the stove, stirring and stirring, watching the onions transform before my eyes – a process that’s just as much alchemy as it is cooking.

Whether you’re braising them in a tagine, pickling them for a refreshing salad, or simply caramelizing them to top a burger, the humble onion is a culinary chameleon, capable of adding layers of flavor and texture to any dish.

A Culinary Adventure Awaits

So, as you unpack your next CSA box and find yourself faced with an abundance of onions, I encourage you to embrace the opportunity for a global culinary adventure. Explore the unique varieties and their regional applications, experiment with different cooking techniques, and allow the onion to be your guide on a journey through the diverse flavors of the world.

After all, as Linda Shiue so eloquently puts it, “the best way to get to know a culture is to sit down and break bread or roti or a bowl of rice or noodles with the locals.” And with the onion as your trusty companion, the possibilities for culinary exploration are truly endless.

So, let’s get cooking, shall we? The world awaits, one onion at a time.

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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