Onions and other aromatic plants belong to the genus Allium in the lily family. In fact, they are commonly referred to as “the stinking lilies” for their distinctive aromatic properties. There is a wide range of species within the genus Allium. They include: onions, leeks, garlic, chives, and shallots.
Photo of Leeks, courtesy of Karen and Brad Emerson.
The Alliums grow best when planted in the fall as they prefer a cooler growing season. The average allium takes about 180 days to grow completely, from the time the bulb is planted to the time the plant is harvested. Growing onions from seed may take even longer. Planting bulbs can be purchased at your local hardware store, or you can order them from specialty seed stores if you want to try more exotic varieties like Russian Red, Ajo Rojo, or elephant garlic.
The Allium family has been prized throughout history for its culinary properties. There are several regions in Europe that have incorporated alliums into the base flavor of their foods. As European explorers and settlers moved west, these regional flavor bases spread throughout North and South America. Today we may use these combinations and not be aware of their origins.
For example, the French use a flavor base of onions, carrots, and celery. This special combination is called mirepoix (pronounced: meer-pwah) and it is used in countless soups, sauces, and other flavorful recipes.
Photo of Mirepoix, courtesy of Island Vittles.
Have your students look up other regional flavor bases to see how they vary from location to location.
A good starting place is to investigate sofrito (Spain), sofritto (Italy), refogado (Portugal) and Suppengrun (Germany).
Also, check out locations in North and South America to see how European culinary influences exist today. Creole and Cuban cuisine will both be very promising.