It's high time I wrote a column dedicated to onions, the flavor-enhancing, surprisingly varied pantry staple we all ignore when it's time to wax poetic about food and flavor. I know pumpkin spice season is usually dedicated to luscious photos of apple cider donuts, decorative corn stalks, gourds and lumpy squash varieties, but the onion's supporting role should be celebrated, too.
This is a good time to hit up the farmers market for heirloom varieties that don't store well over the winter, but provide an incredible spectrum of flavor. It's also a good time to grab storage onions that will stay edible if you keep them in a cool, dry place. You'll see those onions at winter markets around the Berkshires too, I'm sure.
I wanted to talk to an onion expert for this. A Facebook recommendation led me to Dominic Palumbo of Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield, Mass., who grows more than a dozen heirloom varieties, including scallions and leeks, flat, sweet cipollinis, tiny wax onions for pickling, and varieties that will last the winter. (He also grows just about anything else you could think of, plus meat — visit mooninthepond.org.)
In addition to selling at the farm and running a CSA, Palumbo sells his products in Great Barrington (near Rubiner's Cheesemongers) on Friday afternoons and at the Millerton Farmers Market on Saturdays. He says people are always surprised at his onion varieties; it's easy to assume that onions are just red, yellow or sweet, since the varieties in supermarkets are usually those that have a long shelf life.
Palumbo focuses on heirlooms — he says "they're best suited to small, sustainable agriculture and to local marketing." Onions play a role in most of what he cooks, and he takes the heirloom thing seriously, always selling varieties under their traditional names. "These are very specific varieties that have taken hundreds of years to develop," he said.
Brief tasting and cooking guide
You can't really go wrong, but here are Palumbo's recommendations when it comes to onions for eating raw, pickling, cooking and caramelizing. "In the end, it's a matter of personal preference," he said.
• Eating raw: Look for less-pungent sweet onions, which are lower in sulfur, thus their sweetness: Top a burger with some slices, chop up for relish, use in salsa (unless the star of your salsa is hot peppers, in which case you are fine using a regular yellow onion).
• Pickling: Whole onions look pretty in the jar and on the table, but you can also quarter onions and pickle them that way. The vinegar will "cook" any onion you pickle, tempering its specific flavor.
• Cooking: Use what you've got — any onion will provide some velvety depth of flavor.
"One of the amazing things onions provide in a sauce or stew is an element of thickening," Palumbo said, "it's the underlying flavors that become important."
• Caramelizing: "You can caramelize any onion, really," Palumbo said. Caramelizing concentrates onions' sugar and volatilizes sulfur, which is responsible for an onion's sharp taste.
"When you cook the onions, the sharpness and sulfur is released ... so every onion becomes sweet when it's cooked," he said.