LAST WEEK, I came home with a pair of pantyhose given to me by another woman, and my wife didn't hit me with a frying pan. It happened the day the Vidalia Onion Lady came to town. Mary Louise Lever is that lady. A resident of Rome, Ga., she travels to various cities passing out pantyhose, recipes and wisdom about Vidalia onions.
Vidalia onions are like Southern belles -- they are exceptionally sweet but bruise easily. The crop, which by law can be labeled Vidalia only if it was grown in one of 20 southeast Georgia counties, should begin arriving in Baltimore-area markets by next week, Lever said.
To prevent these temperamental onions from rubbing against one another, Lever recommended storing them in the legs of pantyhose, then tying a knot between each onion. During a recent visit to Baltimore, she demonstrated the knot-tying technique, picking up a pair of sand-colored pantyhose provided in a publicity kit. The idea, she said, is to keep the onions cool, dry and separated.
Once the onions are secure, you hang the hose in a dry, well-ventilated area, such as your basement or garage, she said. Most Georgians are accustomed to storing onions this way, but the sight of pantyhose hanging from the ceiling can alarm visitors from the North. Or as Lever puts it, "It shocks the Yankees."
While the hanging hose may make Northerners blush, the hose provide a practical method of onion storage, she said. The mesh in the hose -- she uses laundered hose that have developed "runs" or "ladders" -- allows air to circulate around the onions, slowing spoilage. Vidalias hanging in hose can last for four to six months, she said.
It seemed logical to me that this storage method also would work for other sweet onions -- the Walla Walla, Maui and Texas sweets, whose exceptionally high-sugar and water content make them vulnerable to bruising. But I didn't mention the competition. Somehow it didn't seem proper to accept pantyhose from the Vidalia Onion Lady, then talk about her rivals.
Instead, we talked about other recommended storage methods. One is wrapping the onions in paper towels, putting several wrapped onions in a brown paper bag, then putting the bag in the refrigerator.
She said you also can freeze chopped-up Vidalias, pulsing them in a food processor, then storing them in freezer bags. Frozen onions, she cautioned, should be used in cooked dishes. If you try to use them raw, for instance, as a salad ingredient, they will be mushy, she said.
We talked about how to cook onion rings. She said she soaks slices of onion in buttermilk for a couple of hours, then dips the rings in flour and fries them in 365-degree peanut oil. "The secrets to good frying," she said, "are good oil and the right temperature."
Another good way to cook an onion is to put it on the barbecue grill, and keep it there until the edges turn black, she said. Ordinary onions taste sweet when you cook them this way, and Vidalias taste almost like candy, she said.
She gave me a recipe using raw onions, a spinach salad with orange poppy-seed dressing, which is printed below. She also showed me another pair of pantyhose, which she uses when she appears on television to demonstrate how to store Vidalia onions. That pair is fire-engine red. I liked that color, but didn't ask her for them. I kept the sand-colored pair.
Somehow I knew that if a guy wants his wife to believe that the pantyhose in his briefcase were for onion storage, the hose had better be drab, not saucy, fire-engine red.
Vidalia Spinach Salad with Orange Poppy-Seed Dressing
2/3 cup canola oil
3 tablespoons thawed orange-juice concentrate
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
3 tablespoons grated Vidalia onion
dash of Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon lightly toasted poppy seeds
salt and white pepper to taste
1 bunch fresh spinach, washed and trimmed
1 large orange, cut into segments
1/2 cup sliced, fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup Vidalia onion, sliced into rings
1/4 cup toasted chopped pecans
Make dressing by combining ingredients in screw-top jar. Shake vigorously. Chill.
Arrange the spinach leaves on 4 chilled salad plates, topping with oranges, mushrooms and onions. Drizzle with dressing, sprinkle with pecans.