If you appreciate the taste of onions but not their strong flavor and the inevitable onion breath they leave you with, or if you have difficulty growing onions in your area, then consider growing shallots. A staple in both French and Asian cooking, shallots (Allium cepa ascalonicum) are considered the mildest of all onions and are also more widely adapted and less finicky about growing requirements. Substitute shallots for onions in recipes where you prefer a milder flavor; saute them with a variety of vegetables and meats (see recipe below), slice and toss them fresh in salads or dressing, or oven roast them to bring out their sweetness. Shallots are wonderful in risotto and other delicate rice or noodle dishes for which only a hint of onion flavor is required. Green shallots, harvested before the bulbs size up, are similar to green onions and add a crisp texture to many dishes. No matter how you choose to prepare shallots, their mild flavor won't overwhelm other seasonings.
In most parts of the country, even in my Vermont garden (USDA Hardiness Zone 4), early fall is the best time to plant for a bountiful harvest next summer.
Shallots are classified into two groups based on shape: pear-shaped, often called the French-type, and round. Depending on the variety, the skin and flesh colors range from white to purple. There are many variations on these basic types, and although flavor depends on the variety, growing conditions, and weather, French-type varieties tend to have a more pronounced flavor. As a rule, stressed plants produce bulbs with stronger flavor.
Both round and French-types produce 1- to 2-inch-diameter bulbs. Some excellent varieties of French-type shallots include 'French Demi-Long', with copper-colored skin and purple-tinged white flesh, 'Gray', with papery gray skin and creamy purple flesh, and 'Pikant', a good keeper with mahogany skin and red flesh. Some excellent round varieties include 'Dutch Yellow', also a good keeper with copper-red skin and strong flavored white flesh, and 'Holland Red', a good keeping, red-skinned and -fleshed variety. In general, the firmer the bulb, the better it will store.
Normally, shallots are grown from sets (similar to onions sets). Purchasing sets is the best option for gardeners who want to save their own variety each year or for those who have small gardens. Set-grown shallots may produce flowers, although these often have sterile seeds. But now, after years of breeding, shallot seed is finally available for sale.
For larger plantings, seed is cheaper than sets, and certified disease-free varieties are available. (Fungal and viral diseases can be carried over year to year on set-grown shallots.) Seed-grown shallots have a shape and flavor similar to that of set-grown ones but are more onionlike in their growth habit. For example, sets of seed-grown shallots cannot be saved for replanting. Spring-planted seed-grown shallots, when harvested in summer, produce sets that if planted will bolt without forming bulbs. Seed-grown shallots take longer to mature (usually more than 90 days compared to 70 to 80 days for sets). Each seed only produces one bulb (set-grown shallots produce bunches of 6 to 20 bulbs per plant), and they're more tedious to weed. Set-grown shallots are day neutral--they will form bulbs at any latitude as long as the growing conditions are correct--while seed varieties are somewhat day-length sensitive with some long-day varieties adapted to the North and other, short-day ones to the South. Generally, 40-degrees North latitude is the boundary; it runs approximately from northern California and Colorado through central Illinois to southern New Jersey. These north-south distinctions are not as critical as with onions, and most seed varieties grow throughout the country.
Some excellent hybrid seed varieties include pear-shaped 'Ambition' (95 days), a good keeper with red skin and white flesh that is best grown in the North; pear-shaped 'Atlas' (90 days), with red skin and white flesh that produces best in the South; round 'Bonilla' (105 days), a good keeper with yellow skin and flesh, best adapted to areas in the North; and pear-shaped 'Prisma' (85 days), another northern variety with dramatic rose red skin and white flesh.
Shallots grow best in cool temperatures. Seeds are best planted in spring but can be fall planted at the same time you would seed short-day onions in zone 8 and warmer.
You can plant shallot sets in fall anywhere you plant garlic then: plant sets four to six weeks before the first hard freeze. In spring, plant sets two weeks before your last frost date. Fall-planted shallots, which tend to produce larger bulbs, will be ready to harvest about two to four weeks before spring-planted ones. Last fall, I planted shallot sets in my garden, and more than 80 percent of them overwintered. They did send up flower stalks in spring, but I snipped them off. Flower stalks on fall-planted shallot sets are usually a sign of water, fertilizer, or heat stress (we had a dry, hot spring). Still, these fall-planted shallots matured two to three weeks earlier than the spring-planted sets and produced larger bulbs.
Before planting, prepare the soil as you would for garlic or onions, creating a well-drained raised bed, amended with compost. Direct sow seeds 1/2 to 1 inch apart and sets 6 to 8 inches apart. Like onions, shallots are shallow rooted, so keep the soil evenly moist, fertilize with 1 pound of a complete fertilizer such as 5-5-5 per 10 foot row, and keep the bed weed free. In areas where the temperatures drop below 0? F, cover fall-planted shallots after the first hard freeze with a 6-inch layer of hay or straw.
In spring, remove the mulch at the first signs of new growth, side-dress with a 1-2-1 ratio fertilizer, spreading 1 cup per 10-foot row. You can harvest the young shoots as green onions when the bulbs are 1/4 inch in diameter, whenever the bulbs are large enough for your taste, or when the tops naturally die back. To allow the bulbs to form a tough, protective skin, reduce watering a few weeks before harvest.
Once harvested, separate the bulbs from their bunches and dry them in a warm (80? F), well-ventilated room for two to three weeks to allow the tops to dry and the bulbs to cure (toughen their skins). Cut off or braid the dried tops, and store the bulbs in mesh bags hung in a cool (40? F), humid area, such as an unheated basement. Many shallot varieties are good winter keepers, and I've found that the storage varieties usually last through the winter even if the temperatures in my basement are a bit higher.
Eating shallots is the best part. To make bulbs easier to peel, drop them in boiling water for about 20 seconds; this also moderates their pungency.
French cooks think of onions and shallots as two separate vegetables, each with a unique flavor. So we asked a French chef, Chef Robert Barral, executive chef at the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vermont, for a classic French recipe featuring shallots. Bon appetit!
Grilled New York Steak with Confit of Shallots on Vermont
Cheddar Mashed Potatoes
* Shallot confit and red-wine sauce
* Mashed potatoes
To make shallot confit: Peel and slice 1/2 pound of the shallots. In a medium saucepan, over low heat, add 1 teaspoon of butter, and saute shallots and brown sugar until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the red wine, and cook until wine is absorbed. Set aside.
To make shallots in red-wine sauce: Peel and chop remaining 1/4 pound of shallots. In a heavy medium-sized saucepan, over medium heat, add 1 teaspoon of butter, and saute shallots until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add remaining 1 cup of red wine, and cook until reduced by one-third, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add veal stock, adjust heat to light boil, and reduce sauce until thick but runny, about 20 minutes. (To test sauce, place a teaspoonful on a plate and tilt; the liquid should move but not run across the plate.)
To make potatoes: In a large pot filled with cold, salted water, add potatoes and heat until boiling. Cook potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash potatoes, adding butter, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, and cream. Blend until potatoes are soft and creamy. Season with salt and pepper.
To make steak: Preheat grill to medium-hot. Season steaks with salt and pepper, and place on grill. Cook until meat is medium-rare, about 4 to 5 minutes per side.
To serve, place mashed potatoes in center of plate, spoon red-wine sauce around potatoes, and place steak on top, garnish with shallot confit. Serves 4.
Charlie Nardozzi is a senior horticulturist at National Gardening.
Photography by Sabin Gratz/NationalGardening Association