I have always believed that onions and garlic run through my blood. My heritage is Jewish and Italian, and these twin influences taught me early on that onions and garlic are as important as salt, pepper and a close-knit family.
Nana taught me how to prepare old-fashioned Italian food, rich with these ingredients. I remember staying close to her in the kitchen while she cooked greens laced with olive oil and stuffed huge ravioli with slowly stewed onions and meat. Bubbe cooked strictly kosher, feeding me oniony potato pancakes and garlicky homemade pickles. Both households greeted me at the front door with the welcome aromas of onions or garlic drifting from the kitchen. To this day, the fragrances from a pan of sauteing onions or the perfume of garlic roasting in the oven draw me back into the past.
I have had a lifelong love affair with root vegetables, and those of the Allium genus, which includes onions, leeks, shallots, garlic // and chives, are without question the root vegetables I crave most. Unsung heroes of the kitchen, the onion and its versatile kin can take an understated dish and turn it into a culinary event to remember.
One of the world's oldest cultivated vegetables, the onion is part of the large and varied lily family. It has traveled through time, intimately woven into history since its existence was first recorded in a Sumerian text some 4,000 years ago. Its origin is reputed to be somewhere in southwest Asia, from where it was carried by explorers to all corners of the world.
These days, the onion's first cousins -- leeks, shallots and chives -- are gaining recognition as more than just seasonings. Garlic is the wild child of the family, passionate and beloved, and capable of flavoring our food with gusto. All the members of the onion clan can be prepared in countless ways. They can be eaten raw during peak season and roasted, boiled, sauteed, deep-fried, braised, grilled or pickled anytime of the year. What other vegetables boast such versatility?
Take advantage of the fact that onions are a seasonal vegetable. There are two different kinds of onions -- those that are harvested in the spring and summer and those that are harvested in the fall. The differences between these two types of onions are crucial. Spring/summer onions are mild, full of water, fragile and best eaten raw or lightly cooked. Fall onions are more pungent, dense and meaty and best if cooked. Using the right onion can make a difference in the depth or gentleness of flavor that the cook is able to achieve.
However, don't limit the members of the onion family to specifically defined culinary roles. When a dish calls for green onions, try substituting chives, baby leeks, green garlic or young shallot shoots. In recipes where onions are sauteed, use shallots or leeks for a softer, gentler flavor. Substitute red onions for yellow onions and leeks for mild white onions. And remember, onions are more than just bulbs. Use them throughout their lives, from sprouts to greens to mature bulbs.
The following recipe is the product of the famed Fog City Diner in San Francisco. I tried the dish on my first visit to the restaurant and from the first bite I knew I had found garlic nirvana. In this version, the shallots give the flan a denser texture.
SHALLOT GARLIC FLAN WITH ROASTED GARLIC CLOVES
18 or more cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
light olive oil
2 sprigs fresh parsley or rosemary
4 large shallots, coarsely chopped
fTC 2 garlic bulbs, cloves separated, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cups whipping cream
6 sprigs fresh thyme
dash freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
boiling water, as needed
To prepare roasted garlic, coat garlic cloves lightly with olive oil and place on sheet of aluminum foil along with herb sprigs. Wrap securely and roast at 350 degrees until cloves are soft when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes. Set aside to use as garnish. Reduce oven temperature to 275 degrees.
Meanwhile, to prepare flan, combine shallots, garlic, cream, thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper in medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Bring to gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until mixture is reduced by about 1/3, or until thick enough to coat back of wooden spoon.
Remove from heat and discard thyme sprigs. Strain mixture through fine-mesh sieve into bowl, pressing against sieve with back of spoon to extract as much of liquid as possible.
Whisk egg yolks in separate bowl until well blended. Then whisk yolks into strained mixture until thoroughly incorporated.
Lightly butter 6 (1/2-cup) ovenproof custard cups. Sprinkle equal amount of chives into each. Pour in egg mixture, dividing evenly. Place filled cups in baking pan with 2-inch sides. Cover cups with aluminum foil. Pour boiling water into pan to reach within 1/2 inch of rim of cups. Bake at 275 degrees until flans are firm, about 1 hour. To test, insert tip of knife into center of flan. It should come out clean. Serve flans warm. Garnish with some roasted garlic cloves. Makes 6 servings.