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05/21/2007

What's in a name? An identity

The Washington Post

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Which is which? If the bulb is rounded and pudgy, it's a spring onion. If it's straight and slender, it's a scallion. Both are members of the onion family.

When you see a member of the onion family that is small and long and thin, colored green on the top and white on the bottom, what is it?

Whether you answer scallion, spring onion or green onion depends on where you're from, but also on what you're looking at. This is one onion — make that two onions — with a huge identity problem.

With spring onions beginning to appear at farmers markets, the question needed an authoritative answer. Roy Brubaker, who with his wife, Hope, owns Village Acres farm in Mifflintown, Pa., knows his spring onions from his scallions, because his farm grows both.

There is a significant difference.

Scallions are long and thin, and the little white bulb at the bottom is straight and does not bulge outward. Brubaker likes to harvest his when the bulb is 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter.

"If I left them in any longer, they'd get taller and stronger in flavor, but they'd never develop a bulb,'' Brubaker says. He and his workers plant the scallions in groups of five or six, and that's how they harvest, clean and bunch them for sale.

Spring onions have more of a bulb, and its size depends on how long the plant is left in the soil. Brubaker plants one seed per cell, sometimes two, then transplants them individually. If harvested while still babies — which is done to thin out the beds or to cull the less-hardy plants — they're spring onions; if left to grow, they develop into regular onions.

"When the tops are all green and the bulbs about one to two inches, that's when we harvest for spring onions,'' Brubaker says. They are bunched in groups of two or three, cleaned and sold.

Confusingly, either type is sometimes referred to as a green onion, at least in this country. And the nomenclature gets even more complicated elsewhere. The British use the term spring onion for both spring onions and scallions, and Australians call both of them shallots, although to an American that's another member of this allium family altogether.

But enough with the names. Because there's an obvious visual cue — the size of the bulb — let your eyes decide, and go from there.

Does it matter? It sure does. A spring onion can be used in recipes that call for scallions, giving an extra boost of sweet onion flavor, but the reverse isn't necessarily true because scallion bulbs are so small.

"I choose spring onions for the bulb,'' says James Peterson, author of "Vegetables'' (Morrow, 1998). Peterson cuts off and discards the green tops, then glazes the plump bulbs or roasts them alongside a piece of meat. Brian McBride, executive chef of the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, likes them slowly braised or roasted.

Though scallions can be grilled, roasted or braised, they're usually sliced and diced and are often used raw. With their fresh, mild flavor, they are perfect for cold salads. They're a must in Asian cooking because they cook so quickly in stir-fries. Mexican food wouldn't be the same without them. Peterson loves what a handful of sliced scallions can do for a soup.

"It just freshens the whole thing up,'' he says.

My hands-down favorite way to make sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving: roasted and mashed with sour cream and scallions.

Both varieties needs a good rinse, then the removal of the outer layer, any tough green stalks and the root. After that, the tender part of the green stalk and the white bulb, thin or fat, can be used — although not necessarily for the same thing.

Scallions are available year-round in supermarkets, but not so spring onions. When you spot the latter this month at the farmers market, grab them and do your own taste test. Pretty soon you'll be roasting those bulbs with the rest of us, saving the greens for the salsa — and reverting to scallions once spring is over.

Spring Onion and Chicken Won Tons

  • 1 lb. ground chicken, preferably white meat
  • 1/2 c. finely chopped spring onions or scallions, white and light green parts (about 3 to 4 spring onions)
  • 1 t. cornstarch
  • 2 t. low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 t. sesame oil
  • 1 t. finely minced ginger root
  • 1 T. egg white
  • 45 to 50 won ton wrappers

In a bowl, combine the chicken, spring onion, cornstarch, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and egg white. Use your hands to mix everything together.

Fill a small bowl with water. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap. On a clean counter or one covered with a large piece of aluminum foil, lay out a won ton wrapper. Place about 1 t. of the filling in the center of the wrapper. Holding the wrapper in one hand, use the forefinger of your other hand to brush water around the top rim of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half on the diagonal and press the edges together to seal. (It does not matter if they don't match up perfectly.) Once the edges are sealed, you will have a won ton in the shape of a triangular hat or, if the wrappers are round, a half-moon. Bring the left and right corners together and press to seal. Now the won ton should look a lot like a fortune cookie. Place the won ton on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining ingredients until all the won tons are formed.

At this point, the won tons can be cooked in lightly salted boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes; steamed; sauteed in oil; or deep-fried. They also can be frozen: Transfer the baking sheet to the freezer; when the won tons are frozen, place in resealable plastic food storage bags and keep frozen until ready to use. The won tons should be cooked directly from the freezer; do not thaw.

To serve in soup, garnish with additional chopped scallions or spring onions. To serve as a steamed or pan-fried appetizer, garnish with scallions and drizzle with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. Deep-fried won tons can be dipped in duck sauce. Makes about 45 won tons.

Nutrition per piece: 38 calories, 2 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g cholesterol, 34 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber.\

Lemony Couscous With Scallions and Chickpeas

  • 10 oz. (about 1&1/2 c.) couscous
  • 2 large lemons
  • 1/4 c. mild olive oil
  • 1 15.5-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 1&3/4 c. cooked chickpeas)
  • 8 oz. crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/2 c. thinly sliced scallions or spring onions (about 6 to 8 scallions, both white and light green parts)
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the couscous according to package directions. Meanwhile, wash the lemons and use a Microplane grater to zest them into a small bowl. Juice the lemons; you will need 6 T. of juice.

Transfer the cooked couscous to a large bowl and fluff with a fork to separate the grains. Drizzle in the oil and lemon zest, mixing well.

When the couscous has cooled, add the lemon juice and mix well. Add the chickpeas, the feta cheese and all but 1 T. of the scallions (reserve for garnish). Toss to combine; add salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with the reserved scallions and refrigerate for a few hours before serving. Makes about 8 cups (12 servings).

Nutrition per serving: 221 calories, 8g protein, 27g carbohydrates, 9g fat, 4g saturated fat, 17g cholesterol, 239mg sodium, 3g dietary fiber.

Spring Onion and Ham Tart

  • 1 T. unsalted butter
  • 1 T. vegetable oil
  • 12 to 16 scallions, ends trimmed, light green and white parts thinly sliced
  • 5 oz. ham, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice (about 1 c.)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3/4 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 9-inch unbaked pie shell (use your favorite recipe), chilled
  • 4 oz. grated Gruyere cheese (may substitute any Swiss cheese; about 1 c.)

Preheat the oven to 350°.

In a saute pan over medium heat, combine the butter and oil. When the butter has melted, add the scallions and cook for about 3 minutes, until they have softened. Add the ham and cook for 30 seconds. Transfer the scallion-ham mixture to a plate to cool.

In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the milk, cream and salt and pepper to taste, whisking until thoroughly combined. Spread the scallion-ham mixture in the bottom of the pie shell. Scatter the cheese over the scallion-ham mixture and top with the egg mixture.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly before serving. Makes six-eight servings.

Nutrition per serving (based on 8): 330 calories, 15g protein, 14g carbohydrates, 24g fat, 10g saturated fat, 158g cholesterol, 487mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber

Sweet Onion, Scallion and Chive Dip

  • 2 T. salted butter
  • 1 lb. sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Peruvian, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/2 c. finely chopped scallions, white and tender green parts
  • 1/4 c. finely chopped chives
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 t. salt (optional)

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions just begin to turn golden. Add the scallions and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat; add the chives and mix well. Transfer the onion mixture to a bowl and set aside to cool slightly.

While the onion mixture is cooling, combine the sour cream, cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl. (These can be mixed by hand if the cream cheese is soft or in a food processor if the cream cheese is still firm.) Add the onion mixture and stir to combine. Taste and add salt, if desired. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes three cups.

Nutrition per tablespoon: 34 calories, 1g protein, 3g carbohydrates, 3g fat, 2g saturated fat, 8g cholesterol, 41mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber

Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Sour Cream and Scallions

  • 3 lbs. medium sweet potatoes
  • 1/2 c. regular or low-fat sour cream
  • 1/3 c. finely chopped scallions, white and tender green parts
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Place a large piece of aluminum foil on one of the oven racks; preheat to 350°.

Put the sweet potatoes on the aluminum foil and bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.

Using a large fork to hold the potatoes, peel each one with a small knife (the skin will peel away easily). In a large bowl, mash the potatoes with a fork. Add the sour cream, scallions and salt and pepper to taste and mix until thoroughly combined. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Serve warm. Makes eight servings.

Nutrition per serving: 170 calories, 3g protein, 33g carbohydrates, 3g fat, 2g saturated fat, 6g cholesterol, 158mg sodium, 5g dietary fiber

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