- 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.

I haven’t mentioned the pleasures of whole shallots, slowly roasted in the oven with a bit of sugar and vinegar until meltingly tender and caramelized. They are an ideal accompaniment to roast chicken or a sauteed veal chop.

The same caramelized shallots (often called “confit”) are delicious with cannelini beans, or stirred into a portion of mushroom risotto. In Provence, I found them preserved in pungent, spicy vinegar. As well as the shallots themselves, just a small jar of pickled shallots yields a double bonus of flavored vinegar to use for dressings and marinades.

I would not advise growing your own shallots. They are fickle plants, sometimes flourishing, sometimes withering away for no apparent reason. Not surprisingly, they are triple the price of onions. However, they need no refrigeration and keep for weeks in a cool, dry, dark place, but in daylight they start to sprout.

I have a little covered basket of them in my kitchen, and a ventilated earthenware jar does just as well. For me, shallot is one of the vital half-dozen aromatics that no kitchen should be without: garlic, ginger, parsley, bay leaf, onion … and handy golden globes of pungent, perfumed shallot.

Spiced Indonesian stir-fry

Chicken, pork or beef marry well with shallots in this rapid stir-fry. It will go even faster if you choose tender meat that needs little trimming, such as chicken breast, pork loin or strip steak. Serve it for a quick supper with steamed rice.

½ pound boneless raw chicken, pork or beef

1 garlic clove, chopped

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or more

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1½ tablespoons soy sauce, or more

1½ tablespoons rice vinegar

1½ tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided

1/4 pound shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise

1 plum tomato, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Trim and discard any skin or sinew from the meat. Cut it in ½-inch chunks. Mix garlic, pepper flakes, coriander, ginger, soy sauce and vinegar in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat half the oil in a wok and add shallots. Stir-fry over high heat until brown, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Lower heat, cover and let cook until shallots are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add remaining oil to wok, raise heat to high and add chicken or meat. Stir-fry until lightly browned, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add spice mix and continue stir-frying 30 seconds for medium-done beef, and about 60 seconds for pork or chicken, which should be well done.

Add shallots and stir-fry until very hot, about 30 seconds longer. Remove from heat, taste and adjust seasoning. Add tomato and more pepper flakes and soy sauce, if you like. Top with mint. Makes 2 servings.

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