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Varieties of Dry Onions Differ in Flavor and Shelf Life : The sweets, such as the Walla Walla, have high sugar and water content. It's the pungent storage type that will make you cry.

August 25, 1994|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happens seasonally, and seemingly overnight, on a stretch of fertile Oxnard plain that borders the Ventura Freeway. As harvesters proceed intently across the field, a vegetative landscape is transformed incrementally into erect stands of earth-toned, bulging burlap sacks. Once filled, these sacks look like they've been stuffed full of softballs.

The dry onion harvest has returned to Ventura County.

Though anything but a prodigious harvest, dry onions account for several hundred acres of county farmland. This local summertime picking is but a tiny part of a greater countrywide harvest that keeps a wide variety of these ubiquitous cooking companions on produce shelves year-round.

Essentially, dry onions (onions that are protected by brittle, papery layers of skin) come in two varieties: sweet and storage.

First the sweets. These are the ones you are most likely to smother your hamburger with or chop into a potato salad or a zillion other recipes that call for mild onion embellishment. A sweet onion is not as likely to bring tears to your eyes as does its pungent counterpart, the storage onion.

Some of the more famous sweet onion varieties include the large yellow Walla Walla, grown in Walla Walla County in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. Another, the Vivaldi, comes from Georgia, and the Sweet Imperial hails from the Imperial Valley. There's also the more squat red or Italian versions and the gold-bronze Sweet Spanish.

Because some of these sweet varieties contain a high sugar and water content, they will begin to spoil within a couple weeks, so storage is a problem for growers, said Pete Nyarady of Rio Farms in Oxnard. Hence, their availability fluctuates throughout the year as harvest times ebb and flow.

Currently, local markets are selling sweet red onions for about 69 cents a pound; the Sweet Spanish browns for 59 cents. It is advisable to purchase only what will be used right away, Nyarady said.

Spoilage, however, is far less a worry with "storage" onions, which are commonly stored for months at a time before making it to the grocery store.

The most predominant storage onion is the large Yellow Globe, which is available year round. If you are chopping up a few of these, keep the tissues at arms reach. "These are the real pungent, real hard varieties," said Nyarady said, who manages onion production at Rio Farms and in King City to the north.

Because of its stinging bite, the storage onion has proved to be the most popular for cooking. Strong or mild, both can certainly be used in most recipes, but the results won't necessarily satisfy. When cooking with sweet onions, carefulness need be applied: That sweet goodness will deflate quickly if overcooked. Storage onions can be disagreeable in salads and other preparations calling for raw onion. It's personal preference.

"It really just depends. Many (Latinos) will use the (stronger) onions for their fresh salsas for a bigger flavor," Nyarady said.

Details

* PURCHASE TIPS: Nyarady said onion shoppers should look for good, uniform shape and be sure the skin is indeed brittle and the necks are dry, not moist. Why? Because it could be a sure sign that the onions were not "cured" long enough in the field. "The onions are placed in large burlap bags and left in the field to sit for three to seven days," he said. "If an onion isn't cured properly, it's not going to last very long on the shelf." Also, watch for signs of blemishes, including mildew or mold. Nyarady also suggested avoiding onions that are sprouting green tips.

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