The earth has begun to warm after a cold, dark rest, and the air has lost its winter edge. In nearby woodlands, slumbering morels have been nudged into growth by the gentle April mists, while along fertile river basins thick-piled carpets of wild onions have begun to spread.
Typically, the onion is thought of as a hearty, tear-inducing gorilla of a vegetable, potent enough to stand up to the mightiest salsa one can devise, and therefore risky to use. But in spring, onions come on softly: delicate chives, juicy sweet onions, green garlic and exquisitely hued bunch onions.
That latter gem — the bunch onion (Allium cepa) — is one of my favorite harbingers of the season. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the bunch onion, you’ve got the more slender version, simply known as scallions or green onions. You might have noticed that their quality has improved over the past few weeks. Indeed, although this style of onion is available all year long, the spring-into-summer supplies are of much higher quality, and appear in much greater abundance than at any other time of the year.
Is there a difference between a scallion and a green onion? Some people think it’s a regional thing: Green onions on the West Coast are scallions on the East Coast. But doesn’t that leave a very confused area around the Midwest? Within the produce industry, any onions that are harvested while the tops are still green and the bulbs are small are sold as “green onions.” The scallion controversy is a non-issue. However, in some cooking circles, a scallion is considered a scallion until its bulb matures to about three quarters of an inch in diameter. Then it’s a green onion.
Keep in mind that botanically, green and globe onions differ only in the stage at which they’re harvested. It’s true that in a world of specialization, onion varieties have been bred to accentuate particular characteristics, such as durability in storage or sweetness and juiciness. But all onions can be harvested fresh as green onions, or left to mature.
Once the bulb of a green onion begins to swell, you’ve got a bunch onion. Again, it’s not variety that makes a bunch onion, but maturity. Beginning in spring, onion growers are thinning their crops. These juvenile onions — be they Walla Walla Sweet, Bermuda or yellow — which have been pulled from the fields, are typically bundled into bunches and brought to local farmers markets, where savvy shoppers waste little time tracking them down.
At this young and tender stage, bunch onion bulbs are only one to two inches across. Depending on the variety, the bulbs will vary in color from pure white to a rich purple, with thick-yet-tender stalks sporting a brilliant green. The flavor is still rather delicate — balanced squarely between what you expect from a green onion and a mature one. Thus, bunch onions are highly versatile. They’re still tender and mild enough to be eaten raw, but have developed enough character and flavor to withstand a bit of roasting, grilling or sauteing.
In either case, these tender young onions are indispensable — the kind of staple I stock as religiously as milk, eggs and chocolate fudge sauce.