Grocery store onions are generally limited to yellow or white storage onions, red onions and Vidalias or other sweet onions in season. Local farmers, like Vicky Fry of Fry Farm in the north Walton County community of Bethlehem, enjoy growing more than just these standard varieties.
They grow yellow, white and red onions, but for the past three or four years, Fry and her husband Steve, have also been growing cipollini, small Italian, almost doughnut-shaped onions as sweet as any Vidalia. They’re always on the lookout for new things to grow because they know their customers enjoy trying new things as well.
“One of the first things we learned was how to pronounce their name – chip-oh-lee-knee – from one of the Italian vendors here at the Sandy Springs market,” said Fry. They grow two heirloom varieties, a white variety called “Bianco Di Maggio” and a red variety called “Piatta di Bergamo.”
The Frys plant their cipollini from seed in February and March and then transplant them into the ground. Demand is so high that this year they’ve planted about 1,000 feet. At four plants per foot, that’s four thousand cipollini for their market customers.
One of the interesting things they’ve learned in growing these heirloom Italian onions is that the smaller the transplant, the larger the onion will be.
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This year’s spring temperatures were just right for the cipollini, and they began harvesting Bianco Di Maggio in late May. After curing for two or three weeks, the onions were ready for market. Depending on demand, the Frys should have cipollini available into September. You can find their booth on Wednesday mornings at the Dunwoody Green Market and on Saturday mornings at the Heritage Sandy Springs and Suwanee farmers markets.
These super sweet little onions have thick fleshy rings. The onions are small, just a little more than an ounce each with twelve to fourteen making up a pound. Fry finds a single onion makes a perfect serving for a salad. “We find they’re sweeter than Vidalias and they have a nice crunch.” She also enjoys them roasted whole with butter.
The biggest puzzle with these little onions is how to peel them without losing a whole layer of onion. One easy way is to bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Slice off the root end of the onions and drop them into the boiling water. Boil 30 seconds, then drain the onions and discard the water. The skins will slip right off. You may need kitchen scissors to snip off the little bit of stem end that remains.
Braised Cipollini Onions
Hands on: 25 minutes Total time: 45 minutes Serves: 8
Russell Hayes, formerly chef at Lobby Bar and Bistro, has had this recipe in his repertoire for years. He suggests the onions are just right to accompany a roasted chicken. They’re so delicious, you’ll find reasons to serve them all season long.
Canola oil for browning onions
2 pounds cipollini onions, peeled
6 sprigs thyme, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, lightly coat bottom with oil and stir in onions and thyme. Saute onions until lightly browned, about 2 minutes per side. You may need to do the onions in batches. With the last batch, pour in balsamic vinegar and bring mixture to a boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits on bottom of skillet. Boil until vinegar is reduced by half and forms a glaze on the onions, about 1 minute.
When onions in skillet are glazed, combine all onions with stock and cream and simmer mixture until onions are tender and sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Check consistency of onions by testing with the tip of a small knife inserted in the middle of the largest onion. If onions are tender, and sauce has not reduced enough, remove onions and keep warm and continue to cook sauce until it reaches the consistency you prefer. Season sauce to taste and remove thyme sprigs before serving. Garnish with fresh thyme leaves if desired.
Per serving: 165 calories (percent of calories from fat, 67), 5 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 13 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 41 milligrams cholesterol, 41 milligrams sodium.