Saturday, January 22, 2011

shallot--a guest question

Okay, it's not officially a guest question--no one wrote in and asked 'could you research this for me?' But it did come up as a question on another blog, and as I didn't actually know, I thought it would be a good one to look into. I did think I knew more or less what a shallot was, but the reference to something being served on a "bed of shallots" threw me.

A shallot is an onion, right? Some form of it, anyway. How it differs from scallions or leeks, I really have no idea. And why it would be a good idea to serve anything on a bed of onions eludes me. But I'm going to give this all a go...

...So onions and shallots are distantly related, but there are differences. They both come from the genus allium, but those largish single bulbs we generally think of as onions are categorized as allium cepa, while most shallots are classified as either allium oschaninii or allium ascalonium.  Shallots are smaller, and grow in clusters. You could think of them a bit like garlic cloves, except that they don't have that fibrous membrane binding them all togethe, although they are said to have a bit of garlic in their flavor, which is generally milder and sweeter than onion. Onions are harder to grow than shallots, and are propagated through seeds, while shallots are 'vegetatively multiplied'. Meaning, I think, you put a shallot in the ground and it becomes a seed of itself. Or something like that.
Actually, according to wikipedia, it is a form of cloning, the 'offsets' containing the same genetic material as the mother plant. I'm not sure then why all shallots aren't identical, but that is probably another topic.


But now let's throw scallions into the pot. Scallions and shallots are the same thing, except when they aren't. Scallions, at least to this Californian mind, denote green onions. But apparently to an Australian mind, they conjure up the abovementioned shallots. This confusion of identities is partially etymological, because both shallot and scallion go back to the Vulgar Latin escalonia, which basically means, "from Ascalon". Ascalon was a port of the Levant and still exists as the modern day Israeli city Ashkelon. A website that I chanced upon in my travels called Bashelon--Hebrew Language Detective tells more about onions in relation to that ancient city, and even cites a few classical references. It also tells you why the name Ashkelon might sound familiar.

What questions of an alliumal nature remain? Well, I still don't know why anyone in their right mind would serve anything on a bed of shallots.

28 comments:

  1. What fun! I put green onions into a potato salad on Saturday, but I haven't had any shallots lately. However, I did mention the Lady of Shalott!

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  2. Like Kathleen, I tend to put green onions on things like salads or baked potato. I can't say I've ever used shallots, though I'm sure I've had them somewhere. In my mind they've always been separate things.

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  3. Kathleen, I had thought of putting the Lady of Shalott into the post, but then I also thought of getting ever further into the science behind vegetable cloning. You've got to draw the line somewhere.

    Glenna, no, I've always thought of them as separate things myself. But I guess in Australia, we wouldn't.

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  4. French cooks adore "les eschalottes".

    They are often used alongside onions to add sweetness and a softer texture to a stew and a Flickr search for the work in French or Italian will give some unusal ideas.

    The purple ones have the finest flavour, but are not easily found in shops in Britain and Ireland.

    Worth noting that no member of the Allium family is poisonous.

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  5. Photographe,

    So a murder mystery titled 'Death by Shallot' would probably be a bad idea, huh?

    Yes, I oversimplified the shallot situation a bit. The shallots we are most likely to get stateside are those ascalonium types, but apparently in France, the prized ones are the other sort, particularly the griselle, or the grey shallot. I found an interesting piece just now by an American who is attempting to grow some here.

    Unfortunately, I have also discovered that many inquiring minds have decided that the other shallot, the one I have discussed at greater length, is likely to be just another form of onion after all. Leaving the ports of the Levant behind, they call it simply, "the multiplier onion". Charming if you're a big fan of arithmetic, but otherwise a bit like demoting the status of Pluto.

    Another thing this blog post lacks is quite obvious in retrospect--recipes. Sorry about that, folks.

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  6. Seana

    Do you know champ? One of the few things I can cook:

    Boil new potatoes, chop scallions and simmer them in full cream milk. Drain potatoes, mash and add scallions and milk. Then add Irish butter (not cream) and mash potatoes some more; serve with salad or a steak fish.

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  7. And there's the recipe.

    It sounds great. I love mashed potatoes in any form. But I'm perplexed how I'll get the Irish butter.

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  8. Adrian, that sounds yummy, and nice twist on an old favorite!!

    Seana, do you have a local Costco? The one here carries Irish butter.

    I also found a nice Guinness marinade that calls for scallions recently. I'm thinking of giving it a try on the meat for Adrian's Irish stew recipe. I'd say your scallion post came at a pretty nice time.

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  9. We have Costco. I'm not a member, but maybe I can finagle someone I know into grabbing me some on their next trip. Thanks for the tip.

    I could have sworn that somewhere in one of these blogs I linked to the post where I did finagle a friend into making Adrian's stew and conveniently, she wrote a blog post about it. Did we talk about this already? Anyway, the link is here. For inspiration, should you require any.

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  10. Perfect. I knew that post was somewhere, (I believe you did mention it one time), and her notes will help. I like the browning the meat idea she had.

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  11. Let me tell you, it was excellent.

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  12. Seana, Glenna

    Pretty much any good deli (SC is bound to have half a dozen) will have Dromona or some other Irish butter. Danish butter will do in a pinch.

    I forgot two things that seem obvious to me but perhaps not to everyone: the potatoes must be peeled first and then boiled in salted water.

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  13. Never assume anything is obvious to me when it comes to cooking. I did wonder about the peeling. Wouldn't with regular potatoes, but new potatoes are a bit thinner skinned.

    I shall investigate the Dromona. Friends will know.

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  14. Adrian,

    Like Seana said, never assume when it comes to cooking.

    About how long do you boil them in salted water, and I'm assuming you mean for the champ, not the Irish stew?

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  15. Never mind, I just re-read the instructions. Boil until they can be mushed right. I knew that....I did..really.

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  16. Saute some small bacon pieces slowly to release the fat. About half-way through their cooking, add some thinly sliced shallots and cook till tender. Deglaze the pan (leave that wonderful bacon grease in) with red wine, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and a tiny bit of sugar. Use this as a warm salad dressing over butter lettuce and croutons. Top with a poached egg. Voila: salade lyonnaise!

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  17. Returned for some reason I completely forgot because of SALIVATION.

    We have a World Gourmet, where I will pursue Irish butter.

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  18. That salad sounds great, Leslie. Just got back from the Finnegan group, which is good on beer and kind of poor on food and I am starving. And this is what I'm greeted with!

    Quite a lot of great recipes for a non-food blog by a non-cook, I'm thinking.

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  19. Seana, Leslie, Adrian

    We had the Irish stew last night for dinner and today for lunch, it was wonderful. Leslie, your pictures and tips helped a lot.

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  20. Thought you'd like it. Now, are you up for champs? I have to admit that I've gotten a bit distracted from the task of finding Irish butter lately.

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  21. I think so. Once the Ice and snow clear up here I'm going to have to get the Irish butter and scallions. Funny thing, when I was telling my husband about the champs and scallions he said "those are green onions right?". Seems he needs to start reading your blog.

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  22. Well, actually, he's right, so he can be spared that.

    I forget that you are dealing with ice and snow in Texas. It's counterintuitive.

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  23. Tell me about it. The kids are loving a day off school and my husbands office even shut down. Should have waited till today to make the Irish stew.

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  24. I just saw that 4000 flights have been cancelled due to all this weather. I feel I should probably hide my identity as a Californian right about now. We've, uh, had a little rain...

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  25. Well, on the other hand, we never got snow days.

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  26. You have a point, the occasional snow day is nice...6 of them straight however is overdoing it. If we can get somewhere to get scallions and potatos today I shall give champ a try.

    Too bad I can't use some of this snow that is lying around and send you some of the Irish butter. Getting it at Costco, we have plenty.

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