The Other Onion
For a more refined flavor, savor the subtle shallot
She took a break from chopping and slicing her aromatics and out of the blue said, "Shallots are a sadly underappreciated ingredient in cooking, but they make everything taste better."
Shallots? They struck me as an unlikely candidate for such gratuitous praise. But my friend's bold pronouncement proved to be not only kitchen confidential but eerie prophecy. Once I got started with shallots, it became nearly impossible to cook without them. Along the way, I discovered something else: Many people don't even really know what they are.
This reality hit home, literally, when I asked my husband to grab some shallots at the store for something I was cooking up out of a book. When he came home, he handed me a paper bag filled with . . . onion sets.
Now, if he represents the average consumer, a thought I would rather not dwell on, then we are in a world of trouble. I realized, not only do shallots need better appreciation, but as my husband and his bag of onion sets made painfully obvious, some serious clarification.
Perhaps shallots are underappreciated because they're puzzling. Are these pretty little purple bulbs mutant garlic or a pygmy cousin of the red onion? Clearly they're more refined and nuanced in flavor. So where do they rank among onions, garlic and scallions?
Basically, the shallot is yet another branch on the onion family tree, now classified as Allium cepa. Not surprisingly, its history is as intriguing as its flavor. Traced to an ancient city in Palestine called Ascalon, the shallot earned its original Latin name, Allium ascalonicum. It surfaces in the annals of culinary history as far back as 300 B.C. By the 1st century A.D., a Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, trumpeted the shallot as excellent for sauces. Ol' Pliny was clearly a man ahead of his time.
Ancient scribblings aside, shallots are most impressive for how thoroughly they've burrowed into the basics of cuisines around the world.
As the shallot made its way east from Palestine, it rooted deeply into the culinary traditions of South and Southeast Asia: India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
As ubiquitous as rice or chili peppers, shallots are at the heart of curry pastes and the foundation of the spicy condiment sambal. They can be fried and sprinkled on satay sticks, or pickled in vinegar as a relish. In Thai, these delicate bulbs earned the honorable name horm lek, which means nice smell.
More shallots are grown in Southeast Asia than any other place in the world. And from what I've seen, should a blight strike, widespread starvation would surely follow.
To the west, European cooks also lost no time making them a delicious part of their gourmet repertoire. Cherished for their more subtle, refined flavor than garlic, shallots were integrated into the sauce recipes bernaise, beurre blanc and bordelaise, to name a few that define haute cuisine to this day.
So why, then, after transcending Herculean cultural and geographic boundaries elsewhere, do shallots remain in relative obscurity here in the states? Culinary isolationism? Perhaps, but I've stumbled upon a secret of the shallot that may bring down the wall altogether: low acidity.
This is the cause célèbre for those who have a love-hate relationship with onions and garlic, relishing the flavor only to suffer the consequences later. The low acid content of shallots makes them far more tolerable than their heart-burning cousins. As my chef friend so elegantly put it: "It's easier to use shallots indiscriminately than garlic discriminately."
Though I have no trouble putting shallots to good use, finding a source of quality bulbs in large quantities is considerably tougher. The run-of-the-mill supermarket often displays shallots in a dainty basket, which can disguise a molding or sprouting lot. If you manage to find a few good ones, it's at a daunting $2.99 a pound. (Come to think of it, perhaps it's the price of shallots that has scared us off.)
I frequently seek ingredient satisfaction in the International District, an especially good plan if shallots are on the menu. Here the markets sell them from bins, not baskets. I usually do well at the Vietnamese groceries such as Hau Hau Market where a shipment can get you shallots at an irresistible 99 cents a pound. At this price, you don't mind so much if you lose one or two to the forces of nature.
At my friend's prompting, I've lost no time appreciating shallots, either, incorporating them into vinaigrettes, roasting them along with vegetables (better than candy), dicing them into salsas. They've even made their way into my garden. I've taken the sprouters and tucked them into the ground, right next to the onion sets.
Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer who lives on Whidbey Island. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.
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