Do you have a favorite vegetable? Mine is the Vidalia onion. And right now is Vidalia onion season. They are wonderfully sweet, partly because of their high water composition. While all this water makes them sweet, it also shortens their shelf life. Most families enjoy Vidalias only while they’re in season, so be glad you’re on this continent. They only are shipped to the United States and Canada.
Since I can remember, my family always has enjoyed Vidalia onions: Vidalia onion pies; Vidalia onion soup; Stuffed Vidalia onions; and my favorite recipe from my Grandma, 2-2-2 with Wild Rice (2 pounds stew meat, 2 large Vidalia onions, and 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup).
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, my Grandma, Thelma Anderson, and I would drive into Grand Forks, North Dakota, to the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. An old hauling truck would be parked in the lot for a couple of days, selling wooden crates of freshly picked Vidalia onions. I knew the fellow who drove the truck for two decades only as the “Vidalia onion man.”
Storing the 50 to 100 pounds of onions was the biggest chore for Grandma and me. While the rest of the family prepared the fields for planting wheat and barley, she and I would wrap each onion in old newspaper—not closing the newspaper tightly, but loosely. We returned them to their original wooden crate, and stored them in a cool, dry storage room “root cellar” under the house. The reason we wouldn’t close the newspaper tightly: By altering the nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels that naturally occur in the air around them, Vidalia onions virtually are “put to sleep.” This doubled the storage time. In most cases, we had at least five pounds of onions left for Thanksgiving each year.
The best method for an average home cook to double storage time without digging a root cellar? Wrap your Vidalia onions in paper towels, and refrigerate them in the vegetable crisper—vent closed.
Keeping your onions cool and dry is the key to success in storage. Another storage method for Vidalia onions—if your vegetable crisper if full—is to use old pantyhose. Drop in an onion, tie a knot, drop in another, and so forth. Find a cool, dry area in your basement or a closet. No room in the crisper and no old pantyhose? Space the onions out on newspaper or another paper product that can absorb moisture.
The official state vegetable of Georgia since 1990, Vidalia onions always have been like a friend or family member who visits every spring. Just the other day, the UPS truck drove up, and unloaded 60 pounds of onions for me to wrap and store. I was outside gardening, and watched the UPS man carrying six large boxes—10 pounds each—up to our front door. I was giddy—of course! The UPS man was less than thrilled.
Now starts the familiar season. The first thing I work on in my kitchen is to take a day or two, and can my Vidalia Onion Relish. Before I was banned from entering the Minnesota State Fair, I submitted my relish three years in a row, and won first place each time. I received a letter from the supervisor of the Minnesota State Fair Creative Activities that because I won three years in a row, I had to take two years off. That was a badge of honor in itself.
Of course, every season is Vidalia onion pie season at our house. One of our favorites, it widely is requested by friends and clients. Even the Food Network filmed me three years ago in Orlando, Florida, then flew up to film a profile of me and my onion pie in our home and gardens. Another badge of honor—all because of onions.
Now, each spring, I offer a class called “A Celebration of Vidalia Onions” at the Chef’s Gallery in Stillwater. I teach 20 people to prepare my Vidalia Onion Dip, Vidalia Onion Relish, Vidalia Onion-Dill Bread, Vidalia Onion Beer-Cheese Soup, Onion Rings, 2-2-2 with Wild Rice, Spicy Meatballs in Vidalia Onion Sweet-Sour Sauce, and Vidalia Pie. Check out <www.thechefsgallery.com> for class information and registration.
Stop by your preferred grocer, and purchase a couple Vidalia onions. The simplest way to prepare a sweet feast is to peel your onion, top with a tablespoon of unsalted butter, and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Wrap in tin foil, and set on your outdoor grill while cooking other meats and vegetables—about 40 minutes. That’s it. Unwrap, and serve.
Just like an old buddy, Vidalia onions are unassuming and easy to get along with—but only show up once a year.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under “Extras” at LavenderMagazine.com.