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In season — the sweetest onion

(Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Spring symbolizes new life. After a long, dark winter, fresh green growth, loaded with the sun’s energy, is like a ray of sunshine chasing away winter’s darkness. The longer days and warmer temperatures bring us new, fresh, delicious ingredients.

In the wild, the dandelion greens I’ve added to salads and frittatas are past their prime. Morels, fiddleheads, ramps and other wild things are popping up. In gardens, chives and rhubarb are just beginning to show. At the supermarket, artichokes from California and Vidalia onions from Georgia are in season now.

There are many other sweet onions — but Vidalia is the mildest of all onion varieties, and is only grown in Georgia’s special climate and soil.

It was in 1931, during the Great Depression, that Georgia farmer Moses Coleman discovered his onions were sweet rather than sharp! He began marketing his find at the local farmers market. Vidalia is at the junction of well-traveled south Georgia highways, and by the 1940s word began to spread about the sweet onions available there — and that’s how the name was born.

In the 1970s Georgia began promoting the sweet Vidalia nationwide, and farmers in the region began growing more of this special onion — until production grew tenfold. In 1978, the first Onion Festival was held in Vidalia; this has since become an annual springtime event.

Vidalia Onion Tartines (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

In 1986 the Georgia legislature passed the Vidalia Onion Act, trademarking the name and defining the 20-county region where the onions are grown. It is the soil in this region, with very low sulfur content, that gives the Vidalia its unique qualities. In 1990 the legislature named the Vidalia the state vegetable of Georgia.

Georgia farmers start these special onions from seed in September. In November and December, the grassy-looking seedlings are transplanted by hand into rows, where they grow through the winter. Harvest begins in the second half of April.

So how, exactly, is the Vidalia different from other onions? Most onions contain just 5% sugar; Vidalias have a whopping 12%. That’s why its sweet, mellow flavor lacks the harsh sharpness associated with most onions — and why some people peel and eat them just like an apple!

They also have a unique, flat shape and a higher water content than other onion varieties. This contributes to their juiciness and unique flavor, but it also shortens their shelf life. This is why, unlike other onions, they’re best stored in the bottom crisper drawer of the refrigerator; some wrap them individually to keep them from drying out. It is also why they’re only available for a short time — from late April through July.

Onions are nutritious and healthy. They help prevent cancer, ulcers, heart attacks and strokes. Onions are a good source of vitamin C; one onion has 15% of your daily requirement. One medium Vidalia onion has 60 calories — more than other onions due to its higher sugar content. It also has one gram of protein, 16 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of fiber.

Vidalia Onion Salad (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Enjoy Vidalia onions now, while they’re at their peak of sweetness. Their mild flavor means they’re great raw. Add sliced to all types of salads. Include alongside vegetable crudites with hummus or bean dip. You can even use them to make a flavorful onion dip — without the dry powder mix.

Of course, they’re also great cooked. Finely chop them and add to ground beef or turkey when making burger patties or meatloaf. Cook in frittata or quiche. Add to soups and stews. Caramelize and serve on top of pizza or focaccia, with goat cheese and spinach.

The possibilities are endless! Here are a couple recipes to get you started.

Vidalia Onion Slaw or Salad

This is a simple dish that goes with almost everything. Serve it as a salad, or use it to top hot dogs, brats, burgers, sandwiches.

Ingredients:

2 Vidalia onions (about 2 cups)

1 teaspoon salt

1 or 2 apples

1 Tablespoon good-quality apple cider vinegar

1 stalk celery, sliced thin

1 to 2 cups Romaine hearts, chopped fine

1 to 2 cups finely minced chives, young dandelion greens (or other dark greens like kale or spinach) or combination

Dressing:

1/3 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon good quality mustard

1 Tablespoon maple syrup

Directions:

Peel onion. Slice or mince 1/8 inch thin, using a sharp knife or mandolin.

Place in salad bowl; sprinkle with salt and stir to combine.

Wash, core, and dice apple fine. Add to onions and sprinkle with cider vinegar; stir to combine.

Finely mince remaining vegetables; stir into salad bowl.

In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, mayonnaise, mustard and maple syrup. Fold into salad.

Serves 4 to 6.

Vidalia Tartines

Ingredients:

Whole-grain bread slices or baguette

Butter

Thin-sliced Vidalia onion

Apple slices (optional)

Slices of Cheddar cheese, or shredded Cheddar

Directions:

Butter each bread slice. Top with onion slices, then apple slices if using. Place a slice of cheese on top and put in toaster oven or under the broiler for 3 to 5 minutes, or until cheese melts.

Option: you can also add some fresh greens, like spinach, kale, arugula or dandelions, under the onion slice.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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