How do you like them onions?

There are many ways to use this versatile vegetable
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal Features Editor
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When Manuel and Roberta Ferreira planted their Walla Walla onions in November, they weren’t aware of just how big a surprise they were in for.

The sweet onions have emerged, and they are huge.

“You don’t see them in the grocery store this big,” Roberta said as her husband pulled a volleyball-sized onion out of their garden.

Manuel said he planted small onion plants purchased at Eisley Nursery and the only helper he used was a little bit of nitrogen fertilizer. He said one of last year’s onions was 8 inches across, but when he picked it up it was rotten. This year’s batch is ready to eat.

“My wife slices them up and puts them in my sandwich every day,” he said.

“We mainly eat them raw, because they’re so flavorful,” Roberta said. “We don’t like real hot, spicy things, but you can eat these raw.”

She added that they enjoy cooking the onions with green beans and other vegetables.

Chef Francois Bonnefoi plants about 500 Walla Walla and Stockton red onions each year in his Auburn garden. He harvests them in April, he said, and knows they’re ready when one or two start to go to seed. Manuel said he knows his onions are ready when the tops start to dry out.

“The secret to onions is water,” Bonnefoi said, “lots of water.”

Bonnefoi enjoys making soup with his onions, because soup can be made using several types of onions.

A soup made using beef stock should be made with red wine, he said, and the onions should  be cooked to a nice brown. On the flip side, onion soup made with chicken stock should use white wine and onions cooked just until they are clear.

Holding back tears

The rub of cooking with onions is the fact that they make cooks cry. The science behind this is that when you cut an onion you break its cells, the contents of which produce propanethiol S-oxide, a sulfur compound whose gas reacts with the moisture in your eyes to form sulfuric acid. That burns your eyes, which then release more tears to wash it away.

Newcastle Produce Chef Chelsea Federwitz said she’s tried “almost everything, if not everything” to keep from crying while chopping onions.

“I do think one of the best ways to make it not so bad is having a really sharp knife,” she advised. “The sharper the knife, the less you are smashing all of those molecules that escape into the air and into your eyes.”

Bonnefoi said he cuts his onions in half right away, even before peeling them, and sticks the halves in a container of water with just a little bit of white or apple cider vinegar in it. After soaking for five to 10 minutes, he said, the problem is eliminated without changing the taste.

In addition to onions, the Ferreiras grow squash, broccoli, melons, tomatoes and flowers at their Auburn home. They’ve had a garden together for as long as they’ve been married – 54 years.

“We’re supposed to be retired,” Roberta said, “but we can’t keep our hands out of the dirt.”

Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.

Caramelized red onion balsamic soup
Newcastle Produce Chef Chelsea Federwitz shares this recipe for a tasty onion soup. She advises not cutting the onions too thin, or overcooking them, as they will become very mushy and disintegrate.
Six large red onions, tops and bottoms trimmed, halved, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Six garlic cloves, crushed
2 quarts beef broth
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup sherry
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
In a large skillet, caramelize the onion with the extra-virgin olive oil. Make sure to move the onions around often, so they don’t stick to the pain. This takes about 15-20 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar; reduce for about two minutes. In a soup pot, add the butter, garlic and caramelized red onions; cook together for about two minutes. Add beef broth, sherry, thyme and pepper. Allow soup to cook for about 15 minutes on medium heat.