The onion, surely one of the world's most common vegetables, is acquiring a newfound reputation as a "gourmet" item. These days, onions sweet enough to savor raw "like an apple," sport poetic-sounding names like Vidalia, Visalia, Imperial Sweet or Sweet Maui.
Although sweet onions are relatively new additions to the culinary scene, the more common yellow onion has been imparting its aroma and taste to food since antiquity. Throughout the centuries, onions have been credited with medicinal properties, especially as revitalizing agents.
Whether baked, broiled, stir-fried, pickled or stuffed, onions are still very much part of the modern-day cook's repertory. Sweet onions, once limited to their areas of origins, are now readily available at local supermarkets. Most, such as the Sweet Maui, can easily be grown in North County, while the Imperial Sweet has become a trademark of the Imperial Valley.
Peter Schaner of Schaner Farms began growing Sweet Maui onions in 1982. After experimenting with different varieties, Schaner determined the Sweet Maui was best suited to the mild climate of his Valley Center farm.
"We used to think that the sweeter onions had to be red, but now we know that white or yellow varieties are just as sweet, if not sweeter," he said, pulling out a firm, slightly flattened white bulb from the moist ground. "They're the same ones grown on Maui."
The bulbs will remain edible long after the sea of dark green stalks lining the hillside turn brown and die later on in the season. White and faintly purplish bulbs are already showing at the base of the stalks.
The bulb's growing process depends on the number of daylight hours available to the onion, Schaner said as he led a visitor along the dirt paths contouring his rows of onions. "Some of these grow to be one pound a piece," he said, shaking off the clumps of dirt from the purplish bulb of a hefty Bermuda.
This year, Schaner credits the March rains for bringing his crop to fruition. Pulling a stalk of wild fennel from the rich soil and taking a bite, he expounded on the recent cost increases in the price of water, and on the hardships brought about by the drought: "Many farmers are beginning to feel as though someone out there wants them out of business," he said.
"Farmers are just as concerned about water conservation as anyone else. Their survival depends on it. I save water for all my crops," Schaner said, and pointed to a small pond he dug out by hand to retain as much rainwater as possible. He relies on his own well water for half his irrigation needs.
Although farming in North County isn't what it used to be, this third-generation farmer isn't yet having second thoughts about his profession. "My grandfather was a farmer, and my father became a mechanic to support his farm," Schaner said. His family has farmed on the same plot of land in Placentia for 65 years.
Sweet onions are harvested April through June, but are available dry year-round. The crisp, juicy onions are delicious in salads or in sandwiches and also roasted on the grill or in the oven. Onions become stronger in flavor the longer they are stored, which means sweet onions are best eaten as soon as possible after harvesting.
Ideal storage is in an open crate or mesh bag set in a cool, dry place, in temperatures of 35 to 50. Onions keep better if they are apart from one another. Research indicates that onions help reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and prevent blood clotting. They are a good source of fiber and potassium, and, like all plants, contain no cholesterol.
Schaner Farms, 30969 Mesa Crest Drive, Valley Center 92082. (619) 749-9376. Sells in North County only through the Escondido Farmer's Market. Elsewhere in San Diego County, at the Pacific Beach and newly opened Hazard Center farmer's markets. Sweet Maui onions range from $1 to $2 a bunch depending on size.
The Imperial Sweet Onion Commission, P.O. Box 3575, El Centro 92244-3575. (619) 353-1900. Send self-addressed, stamped envelopes for recipes.