My grandmother used to grow scallions in her garden that she claimed were as sweet as candy. And she used to eat them like that, pulled from the ground, dusted on her jeans and chomped straight down to the root like a Twizzler. I loved my Granny Toni but kept my kisses to myself on those days. When asked how he came up with the name for his popular instrumental, "Green Onions," Booker T said "[b]ecause that is the nastiest thing I can think of and it's something you throw away." Whether you love them or hate them, call them scallions or green onions, this popular vegetable is one of the first flavors of spring in many seasonal markets. Funky as it is, it's fresh, it's green and it's real food right now.
The terms "green onion" and "scallion" are common names used interchangeably to describe a long, thin, tubular allium with a distinctive, but mild, oniony flavor. They come from two different kinds of plants, bunching and bulbing onions. For simplicity's sake, in this article I will use the term "scallion" to describe both the bunching and bulbing varieties.
Allium fistulosum is the bunching onion. It is a long, straight allium that even at full maturity will never develop a bulb. It has a white or red base on its root end and develops a stem that grades in color from pale to very dark green. If allowed to reach full maturity, it will develop a yellow seed head.
Allium cepa is a bulbing onion, the kind you typically have in your kitchen bin. To be used as scallions, they are harvested before the bulb forms while they still retain a straight root to tip shape. Such scallions will have a white or red base, depending on their variety, that shades to light and then dark green at the tip of the plant. Immature bulbing onions are often harvested early in the season to thin the onion crop. It's a farming practice that provides more space for the remaining onions to grow and provides an early-season secondary crop for the farmer (and a tasty bite of spring for the eater).
A Brief History
Most of what we call scallions are just immature onions. So we can speculate that eaters have enjoyed the green sprigs as long as they have their fully-grown, round counterparts. No one has been able to identify the exact place of origin of the onion but it is believed that wild onions were cultivated in Asia. Eaters of ancient Rome were known to enjoy onions and they are commonly mentioned throughout the history and cuisines of most of the world.
A. fistulosum is also known as the Japanese bunching onion. While it is also difficult to pinpoint the origin of this variety of scallion, it has been used medicinally in Asia for over two thousand years. This bulbless onion is the most popular allium in Japanese cuisine. It, too, now is grown nearly worldwide from the United States to Siberia.
- Scallions are also known as the "Welsh onion," but not because they are from Wales. The name is derived from the old German "welsch" which translates as "foreign."
- You can tell the variety of scallion you have by looking carefully at the bottom of the green leaves near where they turn white. If the leaf cross section is "D"-shaped (or has a flat side), it is A. cepa. If "O" or round, it is A. fistulosum.
- Scallions, like other alliums such as shallots and leeks, are part of the lily family.
In warmer climates, A. fistulosum grow year-round and can be propagated by dividing. In colder climates, north of Zone 6, the allium is direct-planted in the spring from seed.
A. cepacan be grown from seed or sets (seedlings that are started in a greenhouse and replanted in the field). They are daylight sensitive and require a certain number of hours of sunlight to trigger bulb formation. They are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases. Crop rotation is critical for the health of the plants, which are often treated with a number of topical inputs to stave off failure.
On the commercial level, fungicides and pesticides are sometimes used to eliminate any risk of crop failure, particularly when the scallions do not benefit from crop rotation, which would naturally keep pests at bay. The Environmental Working Group lists green onions at #32 on their list of dirtiest produce items. While it's not too high on the list, if you are shopping for commercial scallions it may be best to choose organic if to avoid exposure to toxic inputs, particularly if you enjoy a lot of scallions in your diet.
Scallions are about twelve inches long and graduate in color from white or red root ends to bright green tops that are hollow. The upper end of the scallion should be dark green with no sign of yellowing. They should be straight; curled shoots are a sign of age. Choose thinner scallions for milder taste and thicker ones for a more assertive onion flavor or for recipes, such as roasting and grilling (see below) that will benefit from a sturdier vegetable.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Scallions share the same compound, Allicin, also found in garlic, that has been shown to fight bacteria and fungi, lower cholesterol levels, and act as an antioxidant. Scallions also offer starch, sugars, cellulose, fatty acids, pectin and Vitamins A and C.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the white portion of the scallion is used to treat everything from the common cold to kidney stones.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Scallions have a milder onion flavor than other alliums. The root end is tender and more complex than the green tops, which have a strong, pleasantly herbal quality. Like all alliums, scallions take well to cooking and sweeten under the heat of being roasted, grilled, sautéed or simmered.
Raw, scallions are often used in salads or as a flavorful garnish, sometimes as a substitute for chives.
Scallions and potatoes are great together; the green tops are often sliced and sprinkled on twice baked potatoes. Scallions are delicious in the Irish potato recipe, Champ, which features heavily buttered mash studded with handfuls of finely minced scallions.
They are featured heavily in Asian cuisine; in stir-fries and as the key ingredient, of course, in scallion pancakes.
The calçotada is a traditional Catalan feast of grilled green onions dipped in Romesco sauce and washed down with copious amounts of wine poured directly into diners' mouths from a spouted glass jug called a porró. The green onions are grown in a manner similar to white asparagus, burying the majority of the plant so that it stays white and tender. Scallions are great on the grill and make a fine reason for an early spring party of your own (see below).
Scallions have come under increased scrutiny as the source of food borne illness outbreaks. It is critical to thoroughly clean the hollow stems which easily trap dirt and bacteria, particularly when serving the scallions raw. At home, you can wash the hollow part of the scallion by slitting it open and holding it under running water. Or consider blanching your prepped scallions before adding to your recipe to reduce your exposure to potential contamination.
Preventing moisture loss is the key to storing scallions. Wrap them in damp paper towels or reusable plastic bags to keep them fresh and crisp.
Scallions make an easy and flavorful fridge pickle. Cut them into lengths that fit in a sturdy jar and pack them in tightly. Bring equal parts of water and vinegar to a boil and season with salt, a bit of sugar and perhaps some dried spices such as mustard seeds, celery seeds or chilies. Pour the hot brine over the scallions. Cool, cover and refrigerate for at least one day and up to three weeks.
You can regrow scallions by setting the frilly roots in a jar of water on the window sill. Top up the water when it threatens to evaporate and within a week you should have enough green to chop and use in your recipes.
Grilled Scallions with Romesco Sauce
Cooking any allium brings out its sweetness. Grilling adds a delicious smoky, charred flavor to the mix as well. I like to take a page from the Catalan cookbook and pair them with a tangy Romesco sauce. You can serve them as they are as an appetizer or alongside other grilled items such as steak, chicken or even some nice sizzling halloumi. That would definitely get the party started.
1 red bell pepper
1 large tomato or 2 medium tomatoes (about 1 pound)
1 slice country style white bread or a 2" slice of baguette
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/2 cup almonds
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
Freshly ground black pepper
2 bunches of thick scallions, roots removed
Preheat grill to medium. Place the pepper and tomato on the grill and sear until the vegetables are blackened on all sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove the blackened pepper and tomato to a small bowl and cover to steam.
Meanwhile, toast the bread on the grill and set aside. In a small pan, toast the garlic over the grill until fragrant and starting to brown in spots. Set aside to cool. Repeat with the almonds.
Peel the char from the pepper and tomato and place them in a blender. Tear the bread into pieces and add it. Peel the garlic and add it, the almonds, olive oil, vinegar and paprika and puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay the scallions on the grill and roast, turning once, until charred lightly on both sides (about 3-4 minutes per side). Remove from the grill and wrap in newspaper. Allow to steam in the paper for five minutes. Peel off the outer layer of charred scallion and serve with sauce.