Shallot, why not?
In search of a better allium, Tony Jackman has a new quest: to make the shallot as ubiquitous as, well, onions.
Imagine if we could invent a better onion. An onion that almost every chef would favour over the ubiquitous round, fat, white variety we have all grown up with, and even better than the delicious red variety with their milder taste and sweetness that improves any dish you use them in. An onion that’s still an onion, but with less of that gum-curling sharpness on first bite. A sweet and mild onion with a more curvaceous shape. We would flock to the supermarket to buy these splendid onions, slice them fresh into salads and use them as a base for hundreds of recipes.
But we don’t need to invent this special allium. It has already been invented: the shallot. It’s the Cinderella of the allium family, closely related to chives, garlic, leeks, and scallions (aka spring onions / green onions), and in most of the world is pronounced shaLLOT with the emphasis on the second syllable. (Except in America, where nearly everything is pronounced differently, and they say SHA-llet.)
Shallots share a common heritage with plants we might think of as being as diverse as hyacinths, tulips, asparagus and aloe vera, being part of the broader lily family along with their cousins garlic, chives, leeks and many varieties of onion. The name is derived from Ascalonia, the Latin name for Ashkelon, the ancient (and modern Israeli) city of Canaan to which the vegetable can be traced, from where its fame and use spread to Persia, Egypt, the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean region.
One of the joys of living in England nearly two decades ago was the abundance of shallots in trays alongside other varieties in all the supermarkets. They’re as ubiquitous there as carrots, potatoes and, well, other onions. But to find shallots in South Africa, even though they are a bit more commonly available these days, is never guaranteed. Mention “shallot” to some people, especially people who aren’t much given to reading cookbooks, and you might be met with a blank stare.
In recipes, however, shallots are everywhere. Chefs prefer them for their milder, sweeter flavour, as simple as that. They have an elegance on the palate that a strident white onion lacks. Red ones are closer to shallots, and I usually choose those when a recipe calls for shallots but I cannot find any. But why can we not have a bigger shallot industry? There is undoubtedly a demand for them, and their prevalence in so many recipes means that they are easily marketable. A simple marketing campaign to launch shallots as a major vegetable on our store shelves would surely hit the mark. I don’t recall ever having seen such an effort, and the lack of it has long surprised me. Even in the Nineties, when I first wrote seriously about food in The Cape Times, I was calling for shallots to be sold and promoted to fill what I have no doubt is a potentially profitable gap in the market.
Any takers? How about a drive to cook with shallots by Pick n Pay? They can be fairly sure that in these pages we would punt such a venture, given their staunch sponsorship of the TGIFood newsletter. And yes, shallots do appear in some of our supermarkets but we can never waltz into one and be sure we will find them with the conviction with which we know we will find white or even red onions, which thankfully have lately become much easier to obtain.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject: what about pearl onions, sometimes called “pearled” (like pearl/pearled barley)? Those tiny baby ones, not the bigger “baby onions” that are more teenager than infant. Pearl onions are greatly in favour by modern chefs and foodies who like to present gorgeous plates of food. Like those little slices of radish that are now placed on every dish only because they look so pretty and help the cook earn points for presentation, whether or not they actually add anything other than good looks to the dish. Seriously, can we please only add radishes when they suit the dish’s flavour profile? They’re on everything.
And why can I not be sure there will be leeks at the veggie shop? They ought to be as commonplace as carrots and tomatoes. Even spring onions will not always be there when you need them. “Where are the spring onions/ leeks/ celery?” is a constant refrain when I’m out shopping, whether in a Karoo town or the city. Some things should always be there, like milk, peanut butter and, um, Marmite.
Ever in doubt as to whether you want to add sliced raw onions to a salad? The shallot is your answer. They’re great to eat raw, in salads, in sandwich fillings, or slice them very finely and add them to a vinaigrette.
They’re superb for caramelising, as I did in the recipe here for roasted caramelised shallots with thyme and Mauritius dark muscovado sugar. Or roast them with balsamic vinegar, and use them (roasted, caramelised) in a rustic tart. Or, instead of roasting in the oven, you can cook them in oil and/ or butter in a heavy pan on the stove top, with plenty of shaking to move and toss them around for even cooking.
There are recipes for shallot Tatin, steak and shallot pie, Moroccan tagines with shallots and lamb, shallot and fruit chutneys, spiced and pickled shallots, glazed in bourbon and cider, crispy shallots on devilled eggs, even caramelised shallot yoghurt.
Perhaps the most famous dish in which you would use shallots to full advantage is the great French Beef Bourguignon, which is one of the things I most look forward to the winter for. I’m not yet ready for that coldhearted season’s chill, but the thought of a roaring fire, a good glass of red and a bowl of Beef Bourguignon is a fine idea. It will come soon enough. DM/TGIFood