by MONICA MARCU
Excuse my breath! – just had a bunch of green onions…
What would our kitchen and soups be without the distinctively pungent smell and taste of onions? Known scientifically as Allium cepa, onion is a bulb. But make no mistake, despite its humble look, onions are a beloved part of the cuisine of almost all regions of the world. “Onion” comes from the Latin word “unio”, meaning “one”; this reflects the onion plant as a bulb, since it is a union of separate, concentric layers. Onions are believed to come from Asia and the Middle East, where they have been grown for thousands of years. Egyptians loved and revered onions so much that they used them as currency, and even placed them in the pyramids and royal tombs! They paid their workers in onions, among others! The onions were a staple in the Roman diet. Roman Gladiators were rubbed with onion juice to “firm up” their muscles. Onions were an indispensable vegetable during the Middle Age. Christopher Columbus took onions with him on his trips.
While I do not carry onions in my purse, nor do I pay my bills with them, I crave onions at the table. And when I find them, especially the green ones – I enjoy them with any meal. Raw. With their unique combination of antioxidants, minerals and sulfur-containing nutrients, onions should belong in our daily diet, especially in Winter, when few other vegetables keep so well. Animal studies have shown that the sulfur compounds confer an anti-clotting capacity, “thin the blood” and have antibacterial properties. These compounds in onion (and garlic, leeks or chives) can lower blood cholesterol and certain fats, thus supporting a healthier cardio-vascular system. With age, we are all prone to have higher than normal levels of cholesterol and certain fats in the blood, and this can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high blood pressure and heart attacks, among others. It is a good practice to include a rich variety of vegetables, spices and fruits due to their content of phytochemicals (plant-specific substances) that protect the heart and blood vessels.
Human clinical studies have shown that onions can increase bone density, therefore may be of great benefit to elderly who experience a loss of bone density. There is evidence that elderly women may be able to lower their risk of hip fracture through frequent (daily!) consumption of onions. Onions also contain allicin, a substance found in garlic, which has antibiotic properties – it inhibits or kills certain viruses and bacteria. In many traditions onions are a must for treating colds. Used as a tea, soup (remember the French onion soup?), compresses on the chest, onions help alleviate coughs, act as expectorants and improve respiratory difficulties.
Now are you ready for a surprise? Placing an onion on your feet can be a great way of helping you to recover from a nasty cold. This practice has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years.
Like many other plants, onions contain valuable antioxidants—including quercetin. This provides potent anti-inflammatory benefits, especially when combined with vitamins present in plants. Onions are a very good source of vitamins C and B complex, copper, dietary fiber, phosphorus, potassium, etc.
Cooking: When cooking onions, remember that some of the most valuable phytonutrients – the flavonoids – are more concentrated in the outer layers of the onions, so make sure you do not peel too much. The red onions seem to be containing more nutrients and healthy substances than the other siblings. The best in terms of offering most nutrients are the raw onions, but if these are too hard on your stomach, bring out the sweet flavor of onions by sautéing: cook onions for just 6-7 minutes. Cut them into slices then let them sit for at least 5 minutes to enhance the taste. Although some don’t tolerate the pungent onions (odor due to sulfur-containing substances), these are highly beneficial for health. If cutting onions irritates your eyes, use a very sharp knife and cut the onions by an open window. Chill the onions for an hour before cutting. It is possible that onions that were modified to have less pungent odor have also less healthy benefits.
How to store: in a cool, dry, dark place. Some say not to refrigerate them, but keep at room temperature, except the scallions. Onions should be stored separate from potatoes, as they will absorb their moisture and ethylene gas, causing them to spoil faster.