ASK Christine: Alliums

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I had two questions this week about alliums:

Adam said “I am not entirely sure what the difference between green onions, spring onions, and chives are. Oh, and then there’s leeks….” and then Becky asked “what type/color of onion is best for fajitas?”

Alliums are the plant family that includes onions, garlic, chives, leeks, shallots, and scallions. There are two broad categories by which I divide types of alliums: plants cultivated for their roots and plants cultivated for their tops.

Bulb onions are part of the foundation of most cooking. They are part of the French mirepoix, the Creole and Cajun holy trinity, Spanish sofrito; from West Africa to India to Germany you find onions as one of the basic flavor of nearly every culture’s cuisine.

The common, everyday onion is cultivated for its round bulb root, as are shallots, cipollini onions, sweet Vidalia and Walla Walla onions, and red, yellow, and white onions. The bulbed spring onions sold in bunches with green tops intact are bulb onions that have been thinned out or harvested young. Bulb onions tend to have tough green tops which are typically not eaten. Bulb onions are harvested and dried before being used since moisture can cause them to rot; sweet onions like Vidalias have a higher moisture content than their more pungent cousins which makes them more perishable. That difference is also something to take into consideration when you choose which onion you will use; if you don’t want extra water releasing from the onion into your food, you need to either choose a dry variety like the white or yellow onions you find in the grocery store or cook the moisture out first. Dry bulb onions can be kept in a cool dark spot; sweet onions, garlic, and spring onions will keep better in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.

Alliums grown for their tops and flowers are used more as herbs, fresh and raw, used as a more delicate flavor enhancement at the end of preparation than cooked into a dish. Chives and scallions are cultivated primarily for their green tops; their milder flavor and tender greens make them more palatable raw. Chives, scallions, and garlic chives, are delicate and much more perishable than bulb onions, so keep them wrapped in a paper towel in a bag in the crisper drawer and use them within five days or so before they wilt.

Leeks are a bit of a middle ground allium. They have a delicate savory flavor but are usually used cooked, their tougher upper leaves trimmed. They have the slender shape of a scallion with no bulbous root at the end but are not harvested young like scallions.

The pungent heat from any allium can be tempered in one of two ways: with a soak in something acidic like vinegar – shallots in vinaigrette for example – or by the application of heat – garlic roasted to sugary sweetness.

 I hope this was a good overview from which to start getting to know such a ubiquitous plant family a little better.

Introducing “ASK Christine”

” I bought all these little eggplant on sale- what should I do with them?”

“What knife should I buy for my first kitchen?”

“What is this weird looking vegetable at the grocery store *texts photo*”

” I can’t find ancho chile powder; what can I use instead?”

These are just a few of the texts I get from my siblings. I get questions about the photos I post on Facebook, I get texts and emails from the grocery store or in a panic mid-cook “is it supposed to look like this?” People ask me what to do with the okra I’m picking up at the farmer’s market, how I’m going to cook the bag of nettles I’m gingerly picking up with tongs, what I’m going to do with the chicken feet or skate or pork cheeks I’m buying.

I started thinking that it might be fun to have some kind of “Ask Christine” feature here at Cognitive Leeks- it’s the reason I started this project in many ways. I love the interaction of a question instead of just sharing what I’m cooking .

It seems like a lot of my friends agree. When I asked on Facebook, I got an enthusiastic response- and my first question from Heidi:

“I can’t seem to get fish to ever taste right when I make it at home. Do you have some tips to foolproof a fish dish?”

First, choosing the fish: generally, I think that round bodied fish species like salmon, cod, snapper, grouper, and arctic char are easier to handle than flat species like flounder and sole. The flatter and thinner the fish fillet, the less time it takes to cook (which makes them much easier to overcook), and the more fragile it is to move and flip while cooking. A 4-6 ounce filet of a fairly thick fish is a great place to start. It’s easy to handle, and doesn’t have a lot of bones. If you are shopping in a store that has a seafood department, ask for something with a little more oil- something flaky or meaty. And be picky- if it smells “fishy,” it’s not fresh. The piece of fish should be smooth- if it looks like the fish is starting to flake apart, it’s getting dry and starting to break down- that’s not fresh fish.

Second, the hardware. I usually only use non stick cookware for eggs and fish, so I recommend a non stick skillet large enough for all the fish filets you plan to cook to fit without touching.

Unwrap the fish you have bought and dry it off with a paper towel. This will help the surface brown a little. Season the fish with a little salt. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet and turn the heat on to about medium. After a minute or two, place the filets in the skillet “presentation side” down first- meaning the side you want to be showing on the plate goes into the oil first. The more things heat and cook, the stickier they tend to become, so cooking the presentation side first means you have a better chance of the fish staying in one piece and looking nice when it’s done.

If the fish is close to an inch thick, turn it with a wide spatula after about 3-4 minutes- thinner pieces should be checked after about 2-3 minutes. Move it gently and don’t be afraid to use your fingers to guide the flip- the top probably won’t even  be warm at this point. The bottom surface should have a hint of golden brown and the bottom half should just be beginning to become opaque.

Lower the heat to low and put a cover on the skillet. A little condensation will form and finish cooking the fish gently with a little help from steam. Check it after about 3 minutes; you should get a hint that the flakes of fish are starting to loosen. It should be springy (not mushy, not hard) to the touch and the fish will be opaque – no raw line. A sign that you’ve gone too far is that the filet will be completely firm and then some of the protein will begin to seep out between the flakes and will become white “bubbles” on the fish’s surface. Slightly underdone is better than overdone when you turn off the heat. Leaving the fish inside the skillet with the lid on for another 5 minutes while you warm the plates will give it time to cook through with a gentle moist residual heat that will keep the fish from drying out.

If you want to make a simple sauce, a squeeze of lemon juice into the pan after you remove the fish, whisked with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt is always nice.

Fish usually takes less time to cook through than you might think. It is also usually leaner than any meat you are used to cooking so there isn’t much fat to keep the flesh from drying out. Just like you don’t want to over cook a beef tenderloin filet,  and chicken breast gets tough and dry when overcooked, you don’t want to overcook fish. And simple is usually better when it comes to the delicate flavor of fish- a little salt and a hit of lemon is often all it needs.

I also wrote a post about poaching fish, another gentle cooking method that minimizes the risk of overcooking your fish.

I hope that was helpful. If you have more questions, Heidi, you know where to find me.

If anyone else has a burning question I might be able to help with, email me at cognitiveleeks@gmail.com or send me a message on the Cognitive Leeks Facebook page and I’ll see what I can do to help.