In season: onions

Mark Capps and Lynn Teddlie of Straight from the Backyard Farm in Loganville have 6 acres in production. They sell their produce at the Saturday morning Marietta Square throughout the year and at the Tucker market in season.

Capps is a fan of the allium family, growing dozens of varieties of garlic and shallots each year. And he grows onions, the full-size cousin to garlic and shallots, this year planting about 6,000 onions in six different varieties.

“We’ve actually reduced the number of onions we grow because it’s tough to get them to dry right. We have short-day onions like Vidalias and Texas Sweet. They’re called short-day because as the days get longer the plants start to bulb up. But you only get good size bulbs if you can get the plants to grow as many leaves as possible before they begin to make the bulb. The most you’ll get is 13 to 14 leaves. If we can get 8 to 10 leaves, we’re in good shape.”

The more leaves, the bigger the bulb since each leaf is directly connected to the layers of the onion bulb itself. Each leaf represents a layer of onion. When the daylight gets to be about 10 to 12 hours long, the onions begin to make bulbs.

Capps also grows intermediate varieties that need 12 to 13 hours of daylight each day before they begin to make bulbs. Long-day onions, like the yellow Spanish ones with a real bite, take 14 hours of sun and don’t really do well here.

Once the bulbs start maturing, the timing of their harvest is another key factor. “When you see the neck of the bulb, where it tapers into the leaves, starting to flop, that’s when you harvest,” Capps said. “But if the neck doesn’t dry right, the onions will rot. We like to pull them up and then leave them in the fields. You lay the leaves over the bulb to prevent them from scalding and they dry out in the fields. We prefer to dry in the field during a dry spell but if we see rain coming we have to switch the operation over to the barn where it’s harder to dry them. They stay dry in there but without sunlight it takes a long time and neck rot can set in.”

Capps grows sweet onions but doesn’t market them as Vidalias since they aren’t grown in the geographic region of Georgia that earns that name. But he notes that the famed Vidalia onion isn’t just a single variety. “It’s a flat sweet onion that was bred by crossing a Texas Legend with a white Bermuda onion,” Capps said. “The result was a round onion that was a vigorous grower with natural heat resistance. In the area around Vidalia, the farmers plant hundreds of different varieties that will mature at different times, extending the season. But they all are those characteristic flat, sweet onions.”

When conditions aren’t exactly to the onion’s liking, it will throw up a flower stalk (called bolting). That’s the plant’s reaction to stress, determined to make seed so there’ll be a new generation of onion plants. Capps finds that this can happen whether plants are grown from seed, sets or transplants. “Some of the plants seem to be genetically determined to do that.”

And you’ll also find onion flowers at market. “They have a mild onion flavor and you can break off the blossoms and use them as a garnish,” Capps said. “It’s a nice bonus because it’s a good use of something that otherwise would have been wasted.”

Pan-Seared Grouper with Grilled Vidalia Onion Broth

Eric Zizka, executive chef at Oak Steakhouse in Avalon, has created a vegetable broth flavored with the sweet flavors of charred Vidalia onions and spring onions along with the traditional stock flavorings of celery, carrot and sharp onion. At Oak, this broth is served cradling a piece of pan-seared grouper and garnished with grilled red pepper and sliced green olives.

We suggest fishing out those grilled Vidalia onion halves after the broth is finished and serving them as a creamy, sweet vegetable accompaniment to the fish.

1 pound Vidalia onions

2 pounds spring onions

Vegetable oil, for sauteing and brushing onions

2 cups water

1 carrot, diced

1 rib celery, diced

1 jumbo white onion, diced

2 (6-ounce) skinless black or red grouper fillets

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup sliced pitted green olives

Olive oil and sea salt, for garnish

Preheat grill to 400 degrees. Clean grates and lightly oil.

Peel Vidalia onions and cut in half through the root end so they will hold together on the grill. Trim roots and tops of spring onions and remove any wilted outer leaves. Cut in half lengthwise. Brush cut sides of Vidalias and spring onions with oil and arrange them cut side down on the grill. Cook until cut side is charred. Remove from heat. Cut spring onions in half, reserving bulb half for plating fish and leaf half for broth.

Make broth: In a large saucepan, combine grilled Vidalia onion halves and grilled spring onion tops. Add water, carrot, celery and white onion. Simmer 30 minutes. Strain broth and keep warm. Reserve Vidalia onion halves. Discard remaining solids.

When ready to serve, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season grouper with salt and pepper.

In a large ovenproof skillet, add enough oil to film the bottom of the skillet. Heat over high heat. Add fillets and brown on first side. Turn fillets and place in hot oven. Fillets should remain in oven 8 minutes or until cooked through.

To serve: divide broth between two rimmed soup bowls. Arrange fillet center of bowl and sprinkle with sliced olives. Garnish with reserved grilled spring onion bulbs, grilled Vidalia onion halves and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately. Serves: 2

̶ Adapted from a recipe provided by Eric Zizka of Oak Steakhouse, Avalon.

Per serving: 645 calories (percent of calories from fat, 37), 45 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams fiber, 27 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 63 milligrams cholesterol, 528 milligrams sodium.

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