Vegetables and herbs in the onion and garlic family have often been blamed for bad breath and indigestion. But these vegetables of the genus called “allium” [which is the Latin word for garlic] are edible flowering plants that are super healthy. They include vegetables — onions, shallots, leeks and scallions, and herbs — garlic and chives. These plants contain compounds called “organosulfurs”, which are antioxidants. We now know that antioxidants fight off the free radicals that can cause deadly illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
Plants in the allium genus have always been used to flavor foods like vegetables and meats. But now they can be cooked and added to food for the purpose of health, as well as flavor to meat dishes like burgers, chicken and meatloaf, vegetables like potatoes, asparagus, string beans and broccoli and ethnic dishes like Chinese, Italian, Greek, Indian or Middle Eastern food.
The sulfite compounds in allium vegetables and herbs are extremely beneficial in the battle against chronic and fatal diseases,and also contain a powerful substance called quercetin. Quercetin is an anti-inflammatory antioxidant that has been used by people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis to alleviate pain and inflammation of this disease. But the onion and garlic family of vegetables and herbs can be difficult to tolerate for individuals with irritable bowel syndrome or migraines, as these conditions could be aggravated by sulfite compounds. And garlic has long been fabled to ward off vampires and other evil forces in legends and popular folk tales.
Garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, scallions and chives have been used for centuries to flavor recipes, and add taste to foods in almost every continent. Every home and restaurant kitchen contains at least one or two members of the allium genus, especially garlic and some of the many forms of onion — white, purple, yellow, red, sweet Vidalia or other varieties.
Onions are probably the most popular member of the allium family, in the United States. We put onions on our hamburgers — raw, sauteed or stewed. Americans eat fried onion rings as a substitute for French fries. French fried onions from the can are an important topping in the ubiquitous favorite of pot-luck dinners and outdoor cookouts — the string bean casserole that was first popularized by the Campbell’s Soup Company. Chopped onions are a popular topping for hot dogs, and are an important ingredient in chili. as well as omelets, cheese dishes and vegetables. Real onion aficionados enjoy French onion soup, which is topped with cheese, and has become a staple on the menus of casual restaurants and sports bars. Onions are famous for causing bad breath when eaten, and crying while being chopped. They can also aggravate certain digestive disorders due to sulfites, and can bring on migraines in some sufferers of those headaches. Many cooks nowadays who want to avoid weeping, can buy onions already chopped in the freezer section of most supermarkets, or buy minced onions in the seasoning aisle. But nothing compares to a freshly-cut onion for flavor and nutritional benefit.
It turns out that onions have a lot of nutritional value, like all members of the allium genus. Onions have the highest concentration of polyphenols among allium vegetables, as well as quercetin. These compounds are strong phytonutrients, and are helpful in the prevention of heart disease and cancer — especially colorectal and other cancers of the digestive system. Quercetin has been used as a treatment for arthritis because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Onions come in many varieties. They can be white, yellow, green, red and purple. The white and yellow varieties are the most commonly grown and present in almost every supermarket, greengrocer and outdoor market. Bermuda and Vidalia onions are sweeter. Red and purple onions are strong and cause the worst cases of bad breath. Pearl onions are more common in Europe and have a sweet taste closer to leeks.
Garlic is known for its positive and negative qualities in folklore and history, as well as culinary arts. Garlic is often blamed for bad breath, and has been legendary for centuries as protection against vampires. It is a major force in Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as dishes from China, Mexico and Eastern Europe. For decades, garlic capsules have flown off the shelves of supplement sections of drug stores and organic groceries, mostly for their cardiovascular benefits.
Truly, the full benefits and taste of garlic are better unleashed from a fresh clove, which can be minced, roasted or sauteed whole in oil and added to food. But modern cooks have found more convenient tools in powdered or dried, minced garlic from the spice shelf of the grocery store, or in a jar with oil. Although it doesn’t produce the tears of a newly-chopped onion, it can make a bare hand smell for a long while after working in the kitchen.
Garlic and flavonoid phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables, greens, and grains appear to protect against DNA damage induced by mutagenic chemicals found in cooked meat. Although unproven by modern medicine, garlic has been alleged throughout history to help fight tuberculosis and smallpox. But even modern medicine recognizes garlic’s health benefits. Studies show that eating raw garlic can raise the antioxidants in a person’s body, and thus raise defenses and immunity against colds and other viruses. Other studies have proven that garlic can even prevent cancer and slow the growth of tumors. And consumption of garlic has been shown to prevent heart disease.
Scallions, also known as green onions, are a lesser-used member of the allium family than onions and garlic in Western countries. But scallions are very widely used in Asian cooking. Scallions are cooked or used raw in soups, stews, stir-fry dishes, salads and sandwiches. They have a sweeter and milder taste than onions. Scallions are also commonly used in Mexican and Southwestern United States [‘tex-mex’] cooking, and called ‘cebollitos’, which means ‘little onions’ in Spanish.
Scallions have a small white bulb at the bottom, and long thin green stalks that resemble chives. Although scallions have a stronger taste than chives, they often substitute for chives in recipes when cooks do not have access to chives for a recipe, or when they just want a stronger flavor. Scallions are often chopped raw and added at the last minute to soups or salads, to give extra flavor and garnish. Scallions are available year-round, but are at their peak in spring and summer. Scallion pancakes are on the menus of many Chinese restaurants, and are a very popular appetizer.
Leeks are a sweet, mild cousin of onions and in the allium family, despite being a root vegetable. Leeks form a small bulb underground, and sprout green stalks above ground. The part that grows under the soil is the sweeter and more edible portion. The stalks are tougher and not edible. Because leek farmers try to maximize the edible section, they tend to pack soil around the leek plant, so leeks need to be cleaned thoroughly before cooking.
Leeks are deliciously paired with potatoes, as in the cold French soup called vichyssoise, and the ever-popular potato-leek soup. Braised leeks with fennel or mustard seeds are a delicious side dish at many fine restaurants.But leeks can be eaten raw, as a crudité when rinsed well and cut lengthwise. Leeks contain many vitamins and minerals and can lower cholesterol and blood pressure [due to their high potassium content].
Leeks originated in Central Asia and were brought from there to the United Kingdom by the Romans. They were then widely grown and consumed in Wales and are part of Welsh symbolism and heritage. Welsh soldiers were instructed to attach a leek to their helmets in battle to distinguish them from the enemy, and leeks are worn on the day honoring Saint David, patron saint of Wales.
Shallots look like little copper-colored elongated onions. They have a brownish skin on the outside, but separate into sections like the cloves of a garlic bulb, when cut. Choose shallots that feel heavy for their size, and are not sprouting. Although sprouting shallots are edible, they tend to be bitter.
Shallots, when cooked, have a pleasant sweet taste and can be used in dishes for which onions and garlic would be too overwhelming. Although shallots are really onions, they have more of a garlicky taste. They are used successfully with mild vegetables, when garlic might be too strong and dominant. Because shallots are so mild, they don’t cause the bad breath of onions and garlic.
Shallots originated in the Mediterranean, and were brought to Europe by the Crusaders. A few centuries later, the Spanish explorers brought shallots to North America. They are used often in French and Cajun cooking. Shallots are also pickled in Indonesia and sliced and deep-fried in chip form in Southern China. They can be stored in a cool, dry area for up to six months.
Chives with their purple flowers
Best known in the United States mixed with sour cream as a topping for baked potatoes, chives are the only member of the onion family that are not eaten by themselves. Chives act as an herb used for seasoning, and are the smallest allium vegetable. And in fact, chives are considered to be more of an herb than a vegetable. They are used extensively in French and Swedish cuisine. Chives go very well with cheese, potatoes, fish, soup, eggs and shellfish.
Rich in vitamins A and C, chives are considered to have medicinal value. Like the other members of the allium family, chives benefit the circulatory system. And they can act as diuretics, stimulants, and antiseptics. Chives grow with a pretty purple flower, although it’s the leaves that are edible. They have been cultivated for over 5,000 years and have their place in folklore. Romanian Gypsies have used chives to tell fortunes, and medieval households hung bunches of chives in their homes to ward off evil and sickness. Believed to have originated in China, chives were brought to Europe by Marco Polo.