In ancient Egypt, princes reputedly paid 90 tons of gold to buy onions for the laborers building the pyramids. They believed the odiferous bulb would keep the workers in good health and good spirits. After viewing the mighty pyramids, one could say the onions were worth their weight in gold. As a Vidalia onion fan, I maintain they still are.
I experienced the sweet Vidalia's versatility last year at an all-onion meal cooked by chef Roberto Donna of Galileo and I Matti restaurants in Washington. He came up with Vidalia onion fritters and warm asparagus salad with black truffle dressing; roasted Vidalias stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese in sage sauce; penne in a ragu of Vidalias, pancetta and tomato; a salad of onions and fresh herbs cooked under ashes; calves liver sauteed in butter and sage with an onion timbale; and beef braised with onions in red wine.
Vidalias, the chef demonstrated with these extraordinary dishes, deserve their reputation as the caviar of onions. For everyday eating, a sprinkling of olive oil and balsamic vinegar turns Vidalias into a perfect dish. They also taste great baked or grilled whole in their skins; fried in rings; made into relish, sauce and pickles; used as scoops for spreads; or chopped and used in cooking. The sweetest onions in the world, Vidalias are so mellow that they can be munched out of hand like a fruit.
The Vidalia legend began about 60 years ago in Toombs County, when farmer Mose Coleman found that onions he had planted were sweet, not hot as expected. At first nobody wanted to buy sweet onions, but Coleman's perseverance paid off and he made a lot of money with them.
His envious neighbors began growing the same mild bulbs. Through the years, production increased and word of mouth brought the onions fame around the country. Now about 250 growers devote more than 8,000 acres to this crop that thrives only in the sandy loam soil and mild microclimate of southeast Georgia. Federal and state law limit the name Vidalia to onions grown in 20 counties in Georgia.
Vidalias are a seasonal treat. Plants go in the ground in September, about 70,000 to an acre, and mature in late April. From December through April is harvest time for baby Vidalias, which look like leeks but are more tender and sweeter. Mature onions are harvested from May through July.
And now with controlled-atmosphere storage, Vidalias are available from Thanksgiving through Christmas.
Vidalias not only taste delicious but are a nutritional bargain as well, with twice as much vitamin C as apples and about the same amount as oranges. They have no fat, are a good source of fiber, and have only 60 calories (a medium onion). They cause no tears and no onion breath. Now that's what I call an onion worth eating.
Note: Baby Vidalias can be ordered in season from Bland Farms, one of the largest Vidalia mail-order companies (800) 843-2542. Mature onions are available in stores.
The second of the following recipes is from the cookbook "They Only Make You Cry When They're Gone."
ROBERTO DONNA'S CIPOLLE SOTTO LA CENERE (ONIONS ROASTED IN ASHES)
6 Vidalia onions
3 teaspoons olive oil
6 pieces of aluminum foil, cut in 12-inch squares
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Wipe onions with a damp towel. Brush them with oil and wrap in aluminum foil. Place directly in the hot ashes of a barbecue grill. Cook for about 45 minutes or until onions are soft to the touch. When cool enough to handle, peel and slice onions into quarters. Place in a serving dish. Combine vinegar, oil, salt and pepper and pour over onions. Serve warm or cold. Serves 6.
BLAND FARMS VIDALIA SWEET ONIONS PROVENCALE
3 medium Vidalia onions, peeled and halved
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup diced tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon basil
Place onions, cut-side up, in 12-by-8-by-2-inch baking dish. Heat oil and saute garlic, green pepper, tomatoes and celery 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in wine, salt, pepper and basil. Pour over onions. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until tender. Baste occasionally with liquid from baking dish. Serves 4.