In season: Vidalia onions

A bucketful of Vidaliaonions harvested by  Sikes Farms in Collins, Ga. (2011 photo By Bita Honarvar, AJC )

Credit: Bita Honarvar, AJC

Credit: Bita Honarvar, AJC

For a sweet onion to be labeled “Vidalia” it must be grown in a specified region in south Georgia - nowhere else

Each spring, I start looking for Vidalia onions at the grocery store. These South Georgia-grown sweet onions appear on schedule, just in time for spring salads and summer grilling.

In Georgia, we love our famous seasonal treat. For an onion to be labeled "Vidalia" it must be grown in a specified region that includes 13 counties and portions of seven others, all in Georgia. We're so proud of these onions we've named them Georgia's official state vegetable.

Vidalia onion season typically runs from the middle of April through early September. You can count on onion availability in early spring; how long they’ll be in the stores is totally dependent on each year’s crop. With fewer onions harvested, you may have trouble finding them in the stores come August. Lots of onions? Then they should be for sale until September.

Vidalia onions are hand planted and hand harvested. Farmers start their Vidalia onions from seed in September. Those grassy looking seedlings are transplanted into rows come November and December, and the onions grow over the winter until they’re ready to harvest in mid-April.

For those of us who want to extend the season, Wendy Brannen, former executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, offers this suggestion: “Toward the end of summer, it’s time to stock up. We know people still use the panty hose trick [knotting onions individually into panty hose legs], but my favorite way to store them is to buy in bulk and then wrap each onion in paper towels and store them in the refrigerator crisper drawer. Unlike other onions, it’s OK to refrigerate Vidalias.” With her refrigerator trick Brannen is able to have Vidalia onions on hand up until the holidays.

My friend Paula Refi keeps her Vidalia onions on racks in her de-humidified basement. “The Knights of Columbus at our church, St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, sell them every summer as a fundraiser. I buy a big bag, bring them home and lay them out so they will last as long as possible,” she said.

I'm told that Vidalia onions aren’t just a Georgia favorite but are sold in all 50 states and parts of Canada. Refi concurred, saying, “I've been amazed at how my sister and oldest friend in my home town of Philadelphia search out Vidalias every summer. … This humble Georgia crop has attained a certain cachet up north.”

Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2011 and has been updated.

ExploreRELATED: Visit the Vidalia Onion Festival in south Georgia

RECIPE: Summer Salad With Pickled Peppers, Peaches and Fermented Vidalia Onion Vinaigrette

From chef Scott Crawford of Standard Foods in Raleigh, N.C. To make this healthy and flavorful summer salad, you will need one week for fermenting the Vidalia onions. For immediate results, fresh Vidalia onion juice can be substituted for the fermented onions. This recipe was a 2015 Golden Whisk Award recipe from the AJC

For the salad:

1 cucumber, sliced

1 Georgia peach, peeled and sliced

1 batch baby sweet pickled peppers (see recipe)

1 summer squash, sliced

1 batch fermented Vidalia onions (see recipe)

6 yellow wax beans, sliced

6 Sun Gold tomatoes cut in half

4 large strawberries cut in half

1 cup arugula leaves, torn into small pieces

10 tarragon leaves, torn into small pieces

6 large opal basil leaves, torn into small pieces

3 large Thai basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Top of one fennel bulb, torn into small pieces

1/4 cup Romano cheese, microplaned

For the pickled peppers:

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon pickling spice

1 sprig thyme

3 baby sweet peppers, sliced

In a small saucepan heat vinegar, salt, sugar, spices and thyme. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Strain liquid through a fine sieve over peppers. Place in refrigerator and allow to cool.

For the fermented Vidalia onions:

1 cup Vidalia onions, shredded

2 ounces white wine

5 teaspoons salt

5 teaspoons sugar

Mix all ingredients in a stainless bowl then transfer to a glass jar and cover with a coffee filter and rubber band. Be sure the mixture is covered with liquid. Store at 80-90 degrees for at least one week.

For the vinaigrette:

1/4 cup fermented Vidalia onions

1/4 cup cane vinegar

1/2 cup grape seed oil

salt and pepper to taste

In a small bowl, mix fermented Vidalia onions, cane vinegar and grape seed oil. Gently whisk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve: In a large bowl, toss vegetables, fruits, arugula and herbs with vinaigrette. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Present in chilled bowls and top with cheese.

Serves: 4

Per serving, entire recipe: 371 calories (percent of calories from fat, 70), 5 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 30 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 7 milligrams cholesterol, 1,025 milligrams sodium

RECIPE: Grilled Vidalia Onion Steaks

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves: 4

Refi pointed me to Paula Deen’s recipe for grilled Vidalia onion slices. When she sent me this description, I had to give it a try. “We grilled burgers along with some thick Vidalia onion slices slathered with Deen's concoction: melted butter, mustard, honey and Worcestershire sauce. She calls them Vidalia onion steaks. I piled the hot burgers with smoked Gouda, the onions and ketchup, so simple but so utterly delicious that I felt guilty. …We rarely have leftover onions, but I bet they would be a tasty addition to any sandwich or wrap.”

I can only add that Deen’s tip to use thin bamboo skewers to hold the onion steaks together when grilling is well worth remembering.

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Pinch fresh thyme leaves

2 large sweet Vidalia onions, peeled, cut horizontally into 1/2-inch-thick slices

2 tablespoons olive oil

Soak thin bamboo skewers in water for 20 minutes. Preheat grill to medium high. Brush grill grate lightly with oil.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together vegetable oil, honey, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and thyme. Set aside.

Prepare onion slices by running two presoaked bamboo skewers crosswise through each slice, being sure to catch the center rings. Brush both sides with olive oil and place on grill. Cook until beginning to char, about five minutes. Turn rings and brush grilled side with honey mustard mixture. Cook until slices are tender, about five minutes more. Turn, brush second side with honey mustard mixture and grill one minute more. Honey mustard should just start to caramelize. Remove onions from grill. Remove skewers and serve with remaining honey mustard mixture.

Per serving with 2 tablespoons sauce: 270 calories (percent of calories from fat, 66), 1 gram protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 21 grams fat (3 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 99 milligrams sodium.

Adapted from a recipe by Paula Deen.

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