Vidalia onions, ‘something special’

Gerry Klaskala loves Vidalia onions.

And he’s not alone. Since the 1930s, Vidalia onions have been inspiring great chefs and talented home cooks from all over the South and far beyond.

Like them, Klaskala, who is the chef/owner of Atlanta’s acclaimed Aria restaurant, finds a world of ways to use the sweet Georgia culinary treasures.

In fact, when we asked him to come up with a few Vidalia recipes, he had a tough time containing his exuberance.

“I had to hold myself back,” Klaskala admitted. “This turned into a Bubba Gump of onions. The versatility is amazing. Scan through any number of cookbooks and you’ll find onions in a whole lot of recipes.”

Recently, Klaskala traveled down to Vidalia with several other chefs to prepare some special recipes in celebration of the grand opening of the new Vidalia Onion Museum.

On Friday, he’ll be doing a Vidalia onion-focused dinner at Aria for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, with a couple of chef friends, Jeffrey Buben of Vidalia restaurant in Washington, D.C., and Daniel Lindley of St. John’s Meeting Place in Chattanooga.

At the Vidalia Onion Museum opening, Klaskala presented two delicious dishes, caramelized Vidalia onion bread pudding with Sweetgrass Dairy fresh goat cheese, and braised Vidalia onions with country ham crumble.

His colleagues created some equally tasty takes: Buben made a sweet and savory baby Vidalia onion confit; and Kevin Gillespie of Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill cooked up a melt-in-your-mouth Vidalia onion braised pork shoulder.

Klaskala, who is a member of the Vidalia Onion Committee’s Chefs Advisory Board, said he enjoys discovering new and unusual Vidalia recipes.

But he also favors simple preparations that show off the essence of all the onion’s sweet glory — such as braising or roasting — or just grilling thick, juicy slices as an accompaniment for burgers or steaks.

“Vidalia onions are in the holy grail of sacred Georgia ingredients,” Klaskala said. “Georgia peanuts, Georgia peaches, Georgia pecans, Georgia white shrimp are in there. These are things that are synonymous with the South. ... But Vidalia onions are something special.”

Georgia Onion Museum opens in Vidalia

Want to find out what makes a Vidalia onion sweet? Visit the new Vidalia Onion Museum in Vidalia. It explains how the low amount of sulfur in the soil in counties around Vidalia contributes to the onions’ taste, and offers a variety of facts and figures.

The interactive exhibits of “A Legacy With Layers” include the agricultural pioneers who first grew sweet onions in Georgia, the economic, cultural and culinary impact of the Vidalia brand and a separate kids’ room.

As New York City chef Bobby Flay proclaims in one prominent display, “Vidalia onions aren’t just the most famous onions in the world; I think they may be the only famous onions in the world.”

100 Vidalia Sweet Onion Drive, Vidalia, 912-537-1918, vidaliaonion.org .

ExploreRELATED: When is Vidalia onion season in Georgia and where are they grown?

Georgia Peach and Vidalia Onion Salad With White Balsamic Vinaigrette

  • Hands on: 10 minutes
  • Total time: 10 minutes
  • Serves: 8 as an appetizer or amuse-bouche

Klaskala envisions this dish as a taste of two sweet Georgia ingredients. Peaches and Vidalia onions combine to make a fragrant combo. White balsamic vinaigrette and mint provide a refreshing contrast. Canola oil will work if you can’t find grapeseed oil.

  • 4 fresh peaches, preferably free stone
  • ¼ cup Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh mint, roughly torn
  • 1½ tablespoons grapeseed oil
  • 2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup mixed field greens

Cut the peaches in half, remove stone, and cut into thick wedges. In a medium bowl, combine the peaches, onions and mint. Add grapeseed oil and white balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and gently toss.

To serve: Divide peach, onion and mint salad evenly between 8 serving plates. Toss field greens in bowl with the dressing that remains and clings to the bowl. Scatter field greens on plates and serve.

Per serving: 55 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 3 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium.

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Caramelized Vidalia Onion Bread Pudding With Sweetgrass Dairy Fresh Goat Cheese

  • Hands on: 40 minutes
  • Total time: 1 1/2 hours, including 15 minutes for resting
  • Serves: 8 as an appetizer or side

Inspired by a dish Klaskala created for a James Beard dinner honoring French-born chef Madeleine Kamman, this savory, puffy bread pudding gets sweetness from Vidalia onions and creaminess from fresh Georgia goat cheese.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 medium Vidalia onions, 3/4-inch diced
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 pint half and half
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 8 cups country bread, cut into 1-inch cubes and lightly toasted
  • 11/2 cups crumbled fresh goat cheese
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter for buttering eight 6-ounce ramekins

Preheat convection oven to 350 degrees.

Heat vegetable oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add diced onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook until the onions are soft and lightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs vigorously. Add half and half, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, ground pepper, thyme and nutmeg. Add bread, caramelized onions and 1 cup of goat cheese (reserve 1/2 cup for topping). Gently stir to combine.

Butter eight 6-ounce ramekins and divide bread pudding mixture evenly among them. Top with reserved crumbled goat cheese. Arrange ramekins on a baking tray, place in the oven and bake until bread mixture just sets, 30 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool 10 minutes and serve.

Per serving: 380 calories (percent of calories from fat, 54), 15 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 23 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 129 milligrams cholesterol, 969 milligrams sodium.

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Braised Vidalia Onions With Country Ham Crumble

  • Hands on: 45 minutes Total time: 1 1/2 hours
  • Serves: 8 as an appetizer or side

This Southern-meets-Asian recipe was inspired by chef David Chang of New York’s Momofuku restaurant, who tops vegetables, such as bok choy and sugar snap peas, with Hong Kong-style XO Sauce. Klaskala’s take mixes country ham, garlic and ginger to make a crumble that adds texture and salty, spicy flavor to soft, sweet braised Vidalia onions.

  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
  • 4 ounces country ham, thinly sliced and finely chopped. (Ham may be thinly sliced and roughly chopped and then place into a food processor and pulsed until finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 Vidalia spring onions, about 10 ounces each, cut in half, leaving 2-3 inches of the stem intact
  • ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a heavy bottom skillet over medium heat, add vegetable oil and garlic and cook until fragrant and garlic just begins to brown. Add ginger and cook for another minute. Add chopped country ham and continue to cook and stir. Reduce heat and cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. It should look dry and crumbly. Season with crushed red pepper flakes. Set aside.

Season Vidalia onions with salt.

In a heavy bottom skillet, heat vegetable oil and butter. Place Vidalia onions cut side down, lower heat to medium and cook until caramelized. Turn onions over and continue to cook for 3 to 4 more minutes. Transfer onions to an oven-safe casserole dish. Add chicken stock and cover tightly with foil. Place casserole into oven and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, or until onions are tender.

To serve: Remove foil from casserole dish and sprinkle generously with country ham crumble.

Per serving: 81 calories (percent of calories from fat, 56), 3 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 396 milligrams sodium.

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Slow Braised Pork with Vidalia Onions, Garlic and Thyme

  • Hands on: 45 minutes
  • Total time: 4 hours, 15 minutes, including 1 hour for resting
  • Serves: 8 as an entrée, with leftovers

Pork and onions have a natural affinity. Cutting the pork shoulder into smaller portions makes serving easier.

  • 4 pounds boneless pork shoulder (Klaskala recommends Niman Ranch Berkshire pork)
  • 3 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 4 Vidalia spring onions, about 10 ounces each, cut in half, leaving 2 to 3 inches of the stem attached
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced fresh garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Trim pork shoulder of excess fat and cut into large, 7- to 8- ounce chunks. Season pork with salt and pepper. Put flour in a large bowl. Dredge pork in flour and shake off excess.

In a heavy bottom Dutch oven over medium heat, add vegetable oil. Carefully place pork in Dutch oven. Do not crowd and do not move pork unnecessarily. Brown pork on all sides. Remove pork and set aside.

Return Dutch oven to the burner over high heat. Add onions and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally until onions begin to caramelize. Add garlic and thyme and continue to cook for another minute. Return pork to pan, add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook in the oven for 2 1/2 hours.

Remove pan from oven. Allow to rest without opening lid for 1 hour before serving.

To serve: Remove pork with a slotted spoon to a platter, cover and keep warm. Skim excess fat from sauce. Cook sauce over medium heat until it is reduced to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon onion sauce over pork and serve.

Per serving: 452 calories (percent of calories from fat, 62), 28 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 30 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 106 milligrams cholesterol, 1,169 milligrams sodium.