The Allium Genus is the family of plants that includes garlic, onions, leeks, and many other sulfur-rich veggies. Though they may not be the sexiest of vegetables, Alliums are used all over the world and are one of the most versatile of ingredients. It’s tough to find a savory entrée that’s not enhanced by the addition of one or more of these edible bulbs. Not only do they provide an essential flavor, but many members of the Allium family contain powerful antioxidants that make them an important part of any nutritious diet.
When most people think of onions and garlic they think of the cured (or dried) versions – the papery-skinned bulbs that do quite well when stored outside the refrigerator. These come into season in the autumn in Wisconsin, and are stored for use through the winter. Like any other bulbs, cured garlic and onions sprout in the springtime, hoping that someone will plant them so they can regenerate themselves. Sprouts quickly use up the energy stored in the bulb and render them inedible. By early summer, the local storage crop of cured onions and garlic are long gone, and so we rely on imports from California, Oregon, Washington, and Argentina.
What’s a locavore to do in June when the craving for these nutritious and delicious vegetables hits? Luckily, there are many options to turn to through the entire year that don’t mean relying on imported product.
In Wisconsin, garlic is most commonly planted in the fall. The ground is then covered with straw or another insulator to protect it from the winter cold. In the early spring, the cover is removed and the garlic starts to grow.
- Green Garlic: One of the first local offerings of spring, green garlic is the small tender shoot that pokes up out of the ground in April or May. An easy way to think of green garlic is that it’s like the garlic version of green onions (aka scallions). It has a wonderful fresh garlic flavor and can be used in any recipe that calls for “regular” garlic. The white bottom parts hold up well to cooking, the more tender green tops are best added at the end of the cooking process. Green garlic also makes a wonderfully intense pesto.
- Scapes: In the early summer, garlic plants throw up a long curled stalk that terminates in a seed pod. This is the garlic scape. If they are left on the plant, scapes will divert energy away from the growing bulb, so most farmers cut them off. Scapes are completely edible and totally delicious. The tender young scapes can be used raw in salads, or in any way you would use raw scallions. Once they are more mature, scapes can be cooked and used in any recipe that calls for garlic. They also make delicious pickles!
- Bulbs: Garlic bulbs are by far the most commonly used version of the garlic plant. They are usually harvested in the mid to late summer and then dried (or cured) for a few weeks. Look for local cured garlic to arrive in August.
- Scallions: Like green garlic, green onions (also know as scallions) are the baby version of the onion plant. Because they are quite delicate, scallions are best used raw or added at the end of cooking. They have a wonderful fresh onion flavor.
- Spring Onions: Just a hair older and more mature than a scallion, spring onions hold up a bit better to the cooking process. The bottom part of the stalk can be chopped and used in a soup, pasta, or casserole. The green tops are best added at the end of cooking, or sprinkled on top as a edible garnish.
- Fresh Onions: One of the delights of mid-summer, fresh, or uncured, onions bulbs are often sold in bunches with their green tops still attached. These young bulbs often have a zippier flavor than their cured counterparts, but much depends on the variety. Fresh sweet onion varieties are also widely available, and are just wonderful in potato or pasta salad or on the grill. One of the best things about fresh onion is that in addition to the bulbs, the green tops are completely edible and can be used just as you would use scallions or spring onion tops. Because fresh onions have not been cured, they should always be stored in the refrigerator.
- Cured Onions: Like garlic, cured onions are dried for a few weeks after harvest to help give them a longer shelf like. Local red, yellow, and white cured onions are all widely available starting in the early fall and extending through early spring. Some cured sweet varieties are available in the autumn as well; however their higher sugar content makes them ill-suited for storage. Sweet onion’s shelf life can be extended by refrigeration—this is why you’ll always find them in the refrigerated section in our produce department.
Other Well Known Members of the Allium Family
Alliums aren’t just limited to garlic and onions. Here are a few other allium varietals to look forward to throughout the local growing season.
- Ramps: A wild member of the Allium family, ramps are an early spring delicacy in Wisconsin. Ramps have a strong garlic onion flavor and are wonderful when eaten raw, or cooked lightly.
- Chives: The skies the limit for this versatile herb! Chives can add zest and color to almost any savory dish. Some of my favorite things to add chives to are baked potatoes, as an herb crust on chicken or fish, potato salad, or as an addition to basil pesto. Local chives are available from April through November.
- Leeks: Leeks are a cold weather staple in Wisconsin, and are available locally from late summer through November. They are almost always cooked, and make an excellent base for many soups, stews, and casseroles. In the warmer months, leeks are excellent on the grill or in a chilled summer soup.
- Shallots: Local shallots are harvested and cured in the late summer and available from the fall through early spring. Commonly used in gourmet recipes, shallots have a mild sweet onion garlic flavor that adds a subtle sophistication to many recipes.