Spring Produce Guide: the Allium Family

by Anastassia Skarlinski

Alliums are a popular but pungent member of the vegetable family. While potatoes and tomatoes are grown in the largest quantities worldwide, alliums appear in more dishes. Alliums are onions, garlic, chives, and leeks. These ingredients form the backbone of many recipes. 

Garlic is the namesake of this family, as allium is Latin for garlic. Romans fed garlic to their soldiers to make them strong and courageous. Although eating garlic is unlikely to give you these exact benefits, it does have numerous interesting benefits. Most of the health benefits that garlic offers seem to be due to its sulfur compounds, which are activated when the garlic is chopped or chewed. Sulfur is essential in the production of DNA, the building block of just about everything. Garlic is also being researched for its role in tick bite prevention and heart protection. It is also useful in warding off vampires! 😉 

Onions are the most popular members of this family. Onions were very popular in Ancient Egypt. They can be found in drawings, inscriptions, and even ancient tombs; it is believed that the internal rings of the onion were symbolic of eternity. Onions come in many different colors, sizes, and strengths; however, they all offer an inexpensive way to add flavor to savory dishes. Onions are a source of Vitamin C, B6, Folate, Potassium, and antioxidants. The allium family is particularly rich in the antioxidant quercetin, which is being researched for its role in reducing inflammation and preventing disease. 

Leeks, which are known as ramps if they grow wild, look like the big brother of green onions. You can eat both the green and white parts of leeks, raw or cooked. When preparing leeks, you should cut off the roots before slicing them in half lengthwise. This allows you to wash out the rocks and sand that sometimes live between the layers. As the rocks and sand can chip a knife blade, I keep an inexpensive (but sharp) knife solely for leek preparation. Leeks are a good source of Vitamin A, K, C, and manganese. They are also high in an antioxidant known as kaempferol and sulfur. Both are being researched for their role in helping to prevent heart disease and some cancers. Leeks have a long history; the Roman Emperor Nero ate leeks to improve his singing voice. Welsh soldiers wore leeks in their helmets for identification during the battle against the Saxons. To this day, leeks are a national symbol for Wales. 

So, the question most people want to know is, why do alliums make us cry. When we cut into an onion or other allium, we release an enzyme called alliinase which in turn activates another enzyme, lachrymatory-factor synthase. It is this enzyme that irritates your eyes causing you to cry. Food scientists are trying to grow onions that are unable to make lachrymatory-factor synthase, but in the meantime, there are a few tricks to reduce your tears. Cutting the onions while they are cold can help, as can cutting them near a lit candle. Leaving the root end of the onion offers a couple of benefits; giving you a handle, holding the onion together, and reducing crying some. And if none of these tricks work for you, you can always wear some swim goggles. 

You have probably used onions, garlic, and green onions in recipes. They form the backbone for so many recipes. Try caramelizing some onions to add depth to your sauces and soups, try chopping fresh green onions to top your ramen, try roasting some garlic to make a spread for bread. The most popular use for leeks is probably in a soup, but give this recipe for roasted leeks a try for a springtime side.

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