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What’s Round and White and Sweeter Than Coca-Cola?

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What’s wrong with this picture? A child is taking a bite of an object that looks like an apple. Only the apple isn’t an apple--it’s an onion. And the child is smiling, not weeping! It’s an onion from Vidalia, Georgia, and some claim it’s mild enough to chomp raw. Vidalia (pronounced “vi DAL ya”) is to onions what the Napa Valley is to wine: a microclimate where a unique combination of soil, mild weather and a 50-year tradition have conspired to raise the lowly onion to a work of art. Vidalia onions are protected by the closest thing America has to an appellation controllee: “Bootleggers” caught using the Vidalia name for onions grown outside a strictly delineated region can be fined up to $20,000.

Vidalia covers 13 counties in southeast Georgia. Onions have been raised commercially here since the early 1940s. The secret isn’t the onion variety -- the yellow Granix is planted all over the United States. What’s unique are the growing conditions that enable farmers to harvest early, before the onions have had time to develop a strong taste.

Vidalia onions contain a large proportion of water and a whopping 12.5% sugar. That’s more natural sugar than is found in an apple, even more than is found in Coke.

Vidalia isn’t the only region to lay claim to the nation’s best onions. The island of Maui also boasts the growing conditions necessary to produce mild, sweet onions. Maui onions are grown in volcanic soil at elevations of 2,000 to 4,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Haleakala. Yellow to pearl in color, slightly flattened, Maui onions are also mild enough to eat raw.

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Not to be outdone, the farmers of Walla Walla, Wash., have bred an Italian onion variety into a strain remarkable for its delicate flavor and perfectly spherical shape. Walla Walla “sweets” grow quite large, weighing as much as two pounds each. The thick, crunchy layers make Walla Wallas excellent for onion rings. They are also delicious in salads.

Alas, sweet onions are ephemeral vegetables, their season lasting only six to eight weeks. Fortunately, the seasons are staggered, so the onion addict can find a fix from April to the end of August. Vidalia onions are in season from May to mid-June, Mauis from April to August, and Walla Wallas from July to mid-August. Occasionally, you’ll find them at specialty shops, but most often they are ordered by mail.

Because of their high water content, sweet onions are highly perishable. Successful storage depends on three factors: a cool, dry environment, good air circulation, and luck. The first condition can be met by storing the onions in a cool, dry corner of the basement. To ensure good air circulation, Georgians tie Vidalia onions in old stockings with a knot tied between each one. It is important that the onions not touch.

If you don’t have a basement, store them in the refrigerator, individually wrapped in foil. Gourmet onions will keep for extended periods, but they rapidly lose their sweetness. Try to use them within two weeks of purchase.

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The chief advantage of sweet onions is that they are mild enough to eat raw. Thinly sliced, use them in salads or in sandwiches -- anywhere that a regular onion would be too strong.

When cooking sweet onions, keep the preparation simple. Grill them, wrap them in foil and roast for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, or slice them up for soups, tarts and tempuras. To keep from crying when chopping any onion, place a slice of bread in your mouth.

ORDERING GOURMET ONIONS

For further information on Vidalia onions, contact the Toombs County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Drawer 1980, Vidalia, Ga.; 30474 (912) 537-4466. One well-known shipper is Bland Farms, P.O. Box 506, Glennville, Ga. 30427; (800) VIDALIA.

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Maui onions can be ordered from the Ili Ili Farm, Box 150, Kula, Maui, Hawaii 96790; 800-535-MAUI.

For information on Walla Walla “sweets,” contact the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 644, Walla Walla, Wash. 99362; (509) 525-0850. Walla Walla onions can be ordered directly from the Walla Walla Gardeners Association, 210 N. 11th St., Walla Walla, Wash. 99362; (800) 553-5014).

Unlike classical French soupe a l’oignon, this is a cream soup. The apple cider emphasizes the sweetness of the onions. Pancetta is Italian bacon. If unavailable, use regular bacon.

CREAM OF VIDALIA ONION SOUP

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1 pound Vidalia onions (or other sweet onions)

1 parsnip

2 stalks celery

1 clove garlic

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4 thin slices pancetta

1/2 cup apple cider

3 1/2 cups chicken stock

Bouquet garni (bay leaf, thyme and parsley, tied in cheesecloth)

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Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup whipping cream

Cayenne pepper

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Freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons chopped chives

Finely chop onions, parsnip and celery. Mince garlic. Cut pancetta into 1/4-inch strips.

Cook pancetta in large saucepan over medium heat 3 to 4 minutes or until pieces are crisp. Using slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to plate lined with paper towel. Discard all but 2 tablespoons fat.

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Add onions, parsnip, celery and garlic and cook over medium heat 3 to 4 minutes or until vegetables are tender but not brown. Add cider, stock, bouquet garni and salt and pepper to taste. Bring soup to boil.

Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are very soft. Remove bouquet garni. Puree soup in blender and return to pan.

Just before serving, stir in whipping cream and heat to simmer. Add small amount of cayenne and nutmeg and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle soup with pancetta and chives. Makes 4 servings.

Here’s how our Georgian friend, Jim Walsh, prepares Vidalia onions.

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BAKED VIDALIA ONIONS

4 large Vidalia onions

Butter

4 strips country-style bacon

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1/4 cup cream cheese, at room temperature

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt

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Freshly ground pepper

Beginning at pointy end, core onions almost through to other side, leaving root ends intact to hold onions together. Remove skins. Place pat of butter in each onion and wrap tightly in foil. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until onions just begin to soften.

Meanwhile, butter baking dish just large enough to hold onions. Cut bacon into 1/4-inch slivers and fry over medium heat until golden. Drain bacon on paper towel and reserve.

Beat together cream cheese, Parmesan cheese, Worcestershire and bacon and stuff onions with mixture. Arrange onions in baking dish and season to taste with salt and pepper. (Recipe may be prepared up to 4 hours ahead to this stage.)

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Just before serving, bake onions at 350 degrees 15 minutes or until very tender and cheese mixture is thoroughly heated. Makes 4 servings.

Grilling imparts a wonderful smoky flavor to the onions. As I do most of my cooking outdoors this time of year, I usually throw the onions on the grill after I’ve made dinner, allow them to cook while I’m eating and then make the tart the following day.

GRILLED ONION AND GOAT CHEESE TART

1 1/2 pounds sweet onions

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Extra-virgin olive oil

1 (10-inch) baked tart shell

1/2 pound soft, mild goat cheese

2 eggs

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2 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups milk or half and half

Salt, pepper

1/2 pound walnut halves

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Cut onions, with skins on, into halves. Remove skins, leaving roots intact (this helps hold onion together during grilling). Brush onions with olive oil and grill over medium heat 20 to 30 minutes or until tender.

Place onions, flat side down, on cutting board. Trim off roots and any burned spots and cut each onion half into 4 to 6 wedges. Arrange wedges in tart shell, points toward center.

Cream goat cheese in large mixing bowl. Beat in eggs, egg yolks and milk. Season with salt and pepper and pour over onions. Bake at 400 degrees 30 minutes.

Arrange walnut halves on tart in concentric circles and bake 20 minutes longer or until custard is set and inserted skewer comes out clean. Let cool to room temperature before serving. Makes 8 servings.

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Onions for dessert? Maui grower David Kapralik insists his onions are sweet enough to be used in pies.

MAUI ONION DESSERT PIE

2 Maui onions, diced

Juice of 1 lemon

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1/4 cup raisins

3 tablespoons pineapple juice

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons molasses

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2 tablespoons sifted flour

1 (8-inch) unbaked pie shell

1 1/2 cups oats

1/4 cup butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

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2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine onions, lemon juice, raisins, pineapple juice, honey, 1 tablespoon molasses and flour in large bowl and mix well. Spoon mixture into pie shell.

Combine oats, butter, honey, remaining 1 tablespoon molasses and cinnamon in bowl, mixing well. Spread on top of onion mixture. Bake at 450 degrees 10 minutes.

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Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake 40 to 50 minutes longer or until edges are crisp and top is browned. Makes 8 servings.


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