It’s Vidalia season: Try these sweet onion recipes from Aria chef Gerry Klaskala

Aria chef Gerry Klaskala suggests using a FryDaddy if you’re going to make his Vidalia Onion Loaf With Johnny Harris Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Cue Sauce. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

When the Vidalia onion was accidentally discovered in South Georgia in the 1930s, it was something of an oddity.

Now, of course, it’s a seasonal delicacy, shipped throughout the United States from April to August, and coveted by chefs and home cooks for its sweet, crisp flavor, and versatility in all kinds of dishes.

In 1990, Vidalia onions were named the "official state vegetable" of Georgia. And each year, the Vidalia "pack date" is set by the Georgia agriculture commissioner. In 2019, it was April 22, with a forecast of a slightly smaller crop this season.

But the growers say there will be more than enough to satisfy demand. And last month, the Vidalia Onion Committee launched its “Sweet Life” campaign, aimed at consumers who are being encouraged to buy Vidalia onions to “elevate their cooking and entertaining style.”

>> RELATED: What’s the best way to store Vidalia onions?

Someone who needs no persuading is Gerry Klaskala, the chef/owner of Atlanta's acclaimed Aria restaurant. Klaskala has long been finding myriad ways to use Vidalia onions, both at Aria and in his home kitchen.

In 2011, he shared four recipes with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including a Georgia Peach and Vidalia Onion Salad, and a savory Caramelized Vidalia Onion Bread Pudding.

Some eight years later, it seemed like high time to revisit the subject, so we asked Klaskala to come up with four more dishes that reflect his love of the sweet Georgia sensation.

“I’ve been a fan of Vidalias for as long as I’ve lived in Georgia, and I moved here in 1976,” Klaskala said recently, when he invited us to Aria to sample some of this season’s creations.

“I think it’s one of the few items that has a first name,” he proclaimed. “You don’t have to say onion. It has the Madonna factor. You know exactly what people are talking about. They have that kind of clout and cult status. I love the anticipation of the release every year. That heightens the whole thing. And then they don’t last that long, so there’s that little window to buy them and cook with them.

“Even for people who think they don’t like onions, Vidalias are so sweet and mild you can get away with using them. It’s a great onion that plays well. We do them in salads with peaches, and with the right vinaigrette, they play off the peaches beautifully. Right now, we’re using them with pasta and spring vegetables, too.”

“I’ve been a fan of Vidalias for as long as I’ve lived in Georgia, and I moved here in 1976,” said Aria chef Gerry Klaskala, who shared some recipes using Vidalia onions. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

A family favorite, Vidalia Onion and Potato Gratin With Lemon Thyme is the first dish Klaskala had us try this year.

“When I make this at home, my family goes nuts for it,” he said. “It’s easy, but you need to do it the right way. You sweat the onions, add the potatoes and seasonings, and then the water, which you stir to develop a creamy starch that’s sort of glossy, like a risotto. I’ve used chicken stock, but the problem is, it tastes like chicken, and I want the dish to taste like potatoes and onions.”

Klaskala’s Batter Fried Vidalia Onion and Georgia Shrimp With Vadouvan and Cucumber Raita is a rather exotic take on a simple street food dish he once sampled during a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

“This guy was selling these shrimp kebabs that looked like a whole skewer of shrimp,” he remembered. “But you got ‘em and there were only two shrimp and the rest were onion wedges shaped like shrimp. It seemed like a rip-off, but they were really tasty, so it worked.”

Stuffed Vidalia Onions With Creamy Collards and Herbed Bread Crumbs is another recipe we tried that was a different kind of surprise because it elevates down-home greens.

“This one is really just a riff on creamed spinach,” Klaskala said. “But collards have much more flavor than spinach, and an almost aggressive bitterness. We add shallots and garlic and cream to the collards, and we blanch the onions with the skin on to give them a pretty color. It’s like something you might find in Provence.”

Maybe the most challenging recipe for home cooks, Klaskala’s Vidalia Onion Loaf is also the most fun to eat — especially served up with store-bought Johnny Harris Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Cue Sauce on the side.

“If you have a FryDaddy, you’re good to go,” Klaskala said, and laughed. “That’s your tool of choice. And if you don’t have that, use a big pot and a basket. But the thing about the onion loaf is the timing. You slice them paper-thin, immediately toss them in the seasoned flour, and fry them right away. That will keep them all separate, and light, and crunchy, and delicious.”

RECIPES

These Vidalia onion recipes from Gerry Klaskala, the chef/owner of Atlanta’s Aria restaurant, offer multiple ways to cook with the “official state vegetable” of Georgia.

Aria chef Gerry Klaskala’s family is thrilled when he makes his Vidalia Onion and Potato Gratin With Lemon Thyme. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

Vidalia Onion and Potato Gratin With Lemon Thyme

A favorite of Klaskala’s family, this simple and savory Vidalia onion and potato gratin is brightened with lemon thyme, stirred together on the stovetop, then finished in the oven, making it creamy with a golden brown top.

A trip to New Orleans inspired Aria chef Gerry Klaskala’s Batter Fried Vidalia Onion and Georgia Shrimp With Vadouvan and Cucumber Raita. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

Batter Fried Vidalia Onion and Georgia Shrimp With Vadouvan and Cucumber Raita

“First trip to Mardi Gras, a guy was selling a shrimp shish kebab with onions that looked like shrimp,” Klaskala remembered. “No wonder it was so cheap. But it was delicious and gave me the idea for this dish.”

Aria chef Gerry Klaskala calls his Stuffed Vidalia Onions With Creamy Collards and Herbed Bread Crumbs “a riff on creamed spinach.” CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

Stuffed Vidalia Onions With Creamy Collards and Herbed Bread Crumbs

Vidalia onions, collard greens and buttery breadcrumbs come together in a quintessential Southern combo that makes a great starter or side dish.

Aria chef Gerry Klaskala suggests using a FryDaddy if you’re going to make his Vidalia Onion Loaf With Johnny Harris Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Cue Sauce. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

Vidalia Onion Loaf With Johnny Harris Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Cue Sauce

“A lot of people say they don’t like onions, but when they are crispy, they change their mind,” Klaskala said. “This is great for a side dish at an outdoor party. It’s messy.”

Note: At home, Klaskala recommends using a FryDaddy, or similar electric deep fryer, for safety and consistency.

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