- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

BURGUNDY, France

In my garden, it’s planting time when the last sharp showers have finally drained from the topsoil and the moon is new. Folklore has it that a waxing moon encourages plants to grow.

Our farmers market is packed with crates of misshapen little onions, papery white garlic and golden shallots, all intended not for eating, but for planting in the vegetable garden.

Shallot is, of course, a member of the onion family, but its relation to the common onion is as a bottle of vintage Chambertin to a jug of Hearty Burgundy. Shallot is an aristocrat of the vegetable kingdom, and the onion is a commoner — although both have their place in the kitchen.

A shallot’s mellow sweetness is backed with tart acidity and a lingering intensity that you’ll recognize at once in white butter sauce, in bearnaise and in Asian preparations such as a spicy Malaysian flavoring base called rempah.

Most shallots in our markets are golden brown, looking like small yellow onions with several bulbs joined at the stem. The pinkish purple variety is even more desirable, pervading any dish with perfumed flavor.

Recently, large torpedo-shaped, so-called shallots have made an appearance. They are easy to chop and slice, but like most oversize vegetables, they seem, to me, insipid. No wonder. I’ve just learned they are not shallots at all, but a type of onion.

When dealing with a shallot, first pull the bulb apart into its two or three natural sections. Using a sharp paring knife, strip off the skin, lightly trimming the top and root so the layers of the shallot are still held together.

To slice it, think of it as a miniature onion. Halve it through the stem and root so it sits firmly on the board, and cut crosswise into thick or thin slices. (If the shallot has a natural flat side, there’s no need to halve it.) To chop a shallot, a trained chef dices it like an onion, cutting vertically, horizontally and then crosswise in three dimensions. I find it easier to slice the shallot and then chop the slices.

Now we’re in business. Raw chopped shallot is a must in many vinaigrette dressings, especially with potato salad, tomato, beets, cold chicken and toppings for grilled fish. Shallots have a particular affinity for lemon. In France around Bordeaux, a crunchy layer of chopped shallot is a zesty topping for steak. Rings of sliced shallot are a chic replacement for onion on a salad.

We are told that shallots originated in Central Asia and reached the West by ancient Greece. Their botanical name is Allium ascalonicum, which places them in Ascalon, now in Israel.

Mixed with wine vinegar, shallot forms the mignonette condiment served with raw oysters. Even better is shallot wine made by infusing chopped shallots in sherry.

“This is the most expensive but infinitely the most elegant preparation of Eschallot,” declared William Kitchener, author of “The Cook’s Oracle,” in 1821. It “imparts the Onion flavour to Soup and Sauce, for Chops, Steaks or boiled Meats, Hashes, & more agreeably than any.”

Today in Asia, sliced shallot, fried until crispy, is a standby on rice pilafs, lentil purees and peanut sauce. Fire up the wok with a few spoons of vegetable oil and add sliced shallots by the handful, stir-frying until they are brown and crunchy. A bowlful passed as a side dish will disappear in a flash.

Actually, I would add a chopped garlic clove or two to fried shallots, which reminds me that garlic and shallot are family cousins and natural partners in the pan. A little bit of sliced garlic underpins the sweetness of shallot, while shallot tames the brash bite of garlic.

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