the secret cook – knowing your onions

Recently I seem to have built up a surplus of onions in my cupboard. As onions are such an essential vegetable, basic to many savoury dishes, I don’t like to run out, but this week I have been looking for different ways to use them in meals.

Onions are nutritious and provide anti-oxidants as well as vitamins A, B6, C and E, as well as some trace elements. Regular consumption may contribute to resistance to infections, such as colds, and there is some evidence that they may lower the risk of cancer, especially of the stomach and intestinal tract.

Raw onions are more beneficial than cooked ones in this respect, as some of the organic sulphur compounds are destroyed by cooking. However if you bake whole onions in their skins you retain more of the nutritional benefits of the raw onions, while the flavour is milder and more aromatic than raw onions.

Some individuals can react to onions, either raw or cooked. We have very small amounts of raw onions in any form in our house as they don’t agree with one household member. I have a friend who is allergic to onions but can substitute shallots. It’s worth considering substitution if one for doesn’t agree with you, this can include spring onions, red onions, brown onions, shallots, leeks, chives really whatever can be utilised to provide this all-important base for meals.

If onions make you cry while preparing them, it can help to chill the whole onions for half an hour in the fridge before you slice or chop them. This helps to reduce the activity of the enzyme responsible which is called allyl sulphate and is produced when an onion’s ruptured cell is exposed to air, i.e. when you start to slice or chop your onions.

If you are concerned about the smell of onions on your breath, then eating parsley or an apple can help to decrease this. After you have prepared your onions, try rinsing your hands with cold water, then rub them with salt and rinse again before washing with soap and warm water.

This recipe is called Georgian bean salad and makes a glorious lunch or a side dish. It is versatile as it can be eaten warm or cool, easy to prepare and suitable for summer or winter. I have used it as a picnic dish, stored in a leakproof container and then enjoyed in the open air. Team it with bread or toast if you like.

I/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
I tsp coriander seeds
I tsp fennel seeds
Salt and black pepper
3 tbsp oil such as sunflower seed, rape seed, light olive oil or vegetable oil
1 or 2 onions peeled and sliced
1 x 400g can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed.
Other beans can be substituted such as black beans or cannellini
(I really like the Suma organic beans which are not too pricey)
1 tsp red wine or sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp brown. Sugar
1/2 bunch fresh coriander (parsley can be substituted if you can’t get coriander)
Small amount of parsley and dill (though if you have other herbs then do use them, I don’t have dill but use fennel instead, I have also used mint, and other soft green herbs)

Heat a small dry frying pan and toast the seeds until fragrant, then crush with a mortar and pestle and a little sea salt. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a frying pan. Add the onions and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until they are amber. Add the beans and warm them through.

Meanwhile mix together the remaining oil, sugar, vinegar, crushed spices, herbs, salt and pepper in a bowl. Stir this dressing through the warm beans and then serve hot or cold.

Enjoy the better weather we’re now having, as we approach the longest day.

The Secret Cook

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