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Onions – To Cry For
What would a recipe be like if we didn’t have onions? The wonderful aroma and taste of onions round out the flavors of almost any type of food. For centuries, onions have added value to our food and are also considered to have therapeutic properties.
The word onion comes from the Latin word unio for “single” or “one” because the onion produces one bulb. The name also suggests the unification of the many layers of the onion which are compactly arranged. Onions are native to Asia and the Middle East and are believed to have been cultivated for over five thousand years – they were highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians often used them as currency to pay the workers who built the pyramids, and also placed them in the tombs of kings (Tutankhamen) so that the kings could carry them as gifts in the afterlife. In India in the 6th century onions were used as medicine. The ancient Greeks and Romans often dressed onions with extra seasoning in their cooking because they did not find them spicy enough. Many European countries during the Middle Ages served onions as a classic healthy breakfast food. It should be noted that Christopher Columbus brought onions with him to the West Indies and spread their cultivation from there throughout the Western Hemisphere. Today the main producers of onions are China, the United States, Russia and Spain, among others.
Onions are available in fresh, frozen, canned and dehydrated forms. They can be used in almost any type of food, cooked, in fresh salads or as a garnish, and are usually chopped or sliced. Onions are mainly used as an accompaniment to a main course and are rarely eaten on their own. There are many different types of onion ranging from sharp and pungent to mild and sweet.
Depending on the variety, onions vary in size, color and taste. There are generally two types of large, globe-shaped onions classified as spring/summer or storage onions. The spring/summer class includes onions that are grown in warm weather and have typical mild or sweet flavours. This group includes the Maui Sweet Onion (in season April to June), Vidalia (in season May to June) and Walla Walla (in season July and August). Storage onions are grown in cooler weather climates and, once harvested, can be dried for a period of several months. They generally have a more pungent taste and are named according to their colour: white, yellow or red. Spanish onions are classified as storage onions. There are also smaller varieties of onions, such as the green onion (also known as scallions) and the pearl onion.
Onions are members of the Allium family and are rich in powerful sulfur-containing compounds that are responsible for their pungent odors and for their many health-promoting effects. When an onion is sliced the cells are broken, which allows enzymes called alliinases to break down sulphides and produce sulphenic acids (amino acid sulphoxides). The sulfenic acids are unstable and decompose to produce a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide. This gas then reaches the eye it reacts with the water in the eye to form a dilute solution of sulfuric acid which irritates the nerve endings in the eye. Your eye then produces tears to dilute and flush out the irritant. This is what makes your eyes sting and water when chopping onions.
Eye irritation can be minimized by supplying enough water to the reaction, which prevents the gas from reaching your eye. That is why it is believed to be useful to chop onions under running water or submerge them in a bowl of water. It can also be helpful to rinse the onion and leave it wet when slicing. Other suggestions to help reduce eye inflammation are by freezing onions, which prevents the enzymes from activating, limiting the amount of gas produced. Also, using a very sharp knife when cutting will limit the cell damage and thereby reduce the amount of enzymes that are released. Lemon will help to get rid of the typical smell of the onion.
As mentioned, onions are believed to produce many health benefits. Onions are a good source of chromium, the mineral element in the glucose tolerance factor, a molecule that helps cells respond to insulin. Diabetic clinical studies have shown that the chromium produced by onion can reduce fasting blood glucose levels, improve glucose tolerance, lower insulin levels and reduce total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as increase good HDL cholesterol levels.
One cup of raw onion contains over 20% of the daily value for chromium. Since chromium levels are depleted by consumption of refined sugars, white flour products and lack of exercise, peripheral chromium deficiency is common in the United States.
A case-control study of Southern European populations suggests that making onions and garlic a staple in your diet could significantly reduce your risk of several common types of cancer. Eating onions twice or more a week is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing colon cancer. In addition, regular consumption of onions has been shown to reduce high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, both of which help prevent atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease, and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Onions can also help maintain healthy bones. A newly identified compound in onions, gamma-L-glutamyl-trans-S-1-propenyl-cysteine sulfoxide (GPCS) inhibits the activity of osteoclasts (the cells that break down bones). This can be particularly beneficial for women who are at increased risk of osteoporosis as they go through menopause.
Other potential health benefits of onions include a number of anti-inflammatory agents that reduce the severity of symptoms associated with the pain and swelling of osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, the allergic inflammatory response of asthma, and the respiratory congestion associated with the common cold. Also, quercitin and other flavonoids found in onions work with vitamin C to help kill harmful bacteria and are useful when added to soups and stews during cold and flu season.
In many parts of the underdeveloped world, onion is also useful for healing blisters and boils. Onion extract (Mederma) is used in the United States in the treatment of topical scars.
When choosing onions, choose onions that are clean, without an opening in the neck and have crisp, dry outer skins. Avoid onions that have sprouted, have signs of mold, or once have soft spots, moisture in the neck, and dark patches that may show signs of rot. When choosing scallops, choose those with fresh, green tops that are crisp and tender. They should be white in color for 2-3″ along the base. Avoid scallions that look wild or have yellow tops.
Store onions at room temperature, away from bright light and in a well ventilated area. It is ideal to hang them in a wire basket or perforated bowl for ventilation. Onions that are more pungent in taste, such as yellow onions, can be stored for longer periods than the sweeter variety of onions, such as white onions. Scallops should be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge and will keep well for about a week. Store all onions away from potatoes as the onions will absorb the moisture from the potatoes and cause them to spoil more easily. Chopped onions should be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or sealed in a container, and should be used within a few days as they tend to oxidize and lose their nutritional value quickly. To maintain the best flavor of cooked onions, they should be stored in an airtight container and used within a few days. Never put cooked onions in a metal container as this will cause discolouration. Peeled and chopped onions can be frozen raw, but this may cause them to lose some of their flavour.
Onions can be eaten raw or cooked in almost any way imaginable – broiled, boiled, baked, creamed, fried, deep fried, or pickled. They are excellent in soups, stews and combined with meats and vegetables. They add versatility to your meals that is hard to beat.
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