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Recipes and Stories

6 March 2012: Spring Onions in Cream

Spring Onions in Cream

Among the loveliest and yet most neglected flavors of spring are true spring onions, the first slender, bright sprouts of the new growing season. Loosely — and misleadingly — labeled “green” onions, and today available year round, immature onion sprouts, like asparagus, were once strictly seasonal, available for only a few precious weeks.

The loose name “green onion” also covered a lot more territory than the universal, taken-for-granted scallions that are the only variety to be found in most produce bins today.

Moreover, not only were there many varieties of spring onions in the old days, there was also more distinction made between them. Lettice Bryan (the master cook behind The Kentucky Housewife, 1839) singled out spring shallots as the loveliest of all, and gave them special treatment.

For the lucky few who still grow their own onions, or who have access to a good farmer’s market, true spring onions are a revelation, especially if one can manage to come by a cache of green shallots. However, it is comforting for us all to know that Mrs. Bryan’s luscious treatment does wonders even for our ubiquitous taken-for-granted scallions, especially at this time of year, when they’re at their seasonal best.

“To Stew Onions.

Peel, rinse and cut each one in four, stew them till very tender in a small quantity of water; then add a large slice of butter, rolled in flour, some salt, pepper, a little powdered mace, and a cup of sweet cream; boil it up once, and serve it. Onions, when very young and tender, may be stewed in the same manner, leaving on a part of the green tops.”

To Stew Eschalots.

There are the spring and fall eschalots. The former is much the finest [in] every way, being larger, milder and sweeter than the others. Peel them, cut off the roots and part of the green tops, rinse them clean, and cut them small; put them into a pan with some nice drippings or lard, a little water and salt, cover the pan, and stew them till they are done very tender, raising the lid and stirring them frequently; then stir in a little flour, pepper, and a cup of sweet milk or cream; boil it up again and serve it.”

— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.

Spring Onions in Cream

Instead of thickening the cooking liquid with a buerre manié as Mrs. Bryan did, I like to reduce it to a syrup, but the recipe that follows hers is otherwise just as she put it down nearly two centuries ago.

She almost certainly intended this to accompany a simple main dish such as roasted poultry, spring lamb, or perhaps grilled lamb or mutton chops. If the onions are cut on the bias into short inch-long pieces (much as she directs for spring shallots), it makes a lovely seasonal sauce for any roasted or grilled poultry, lamb, mutton, or pork.

Serves 4

1½ pounds small green onions or scallions
1cup heavy cream (minimum 36% milkfat)
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
One small blade of mace, crushed with a mortar and pestle, or if still somewhat pliable, minced, or whole nutmeg in a grater

1. Trim the roots and any withered leaves from the onions. Cut off just enough of the green tops to make them all of a uniform length and drop them into a basin of cold water.

2. Over medium heat, bring a cup of water to a rolling boil in a wide, lidded skillet that will hold the onions in no more than two layers. Drain the onions and add them to the pan. Cover loosely and let it come back to a boil, then uncover, and add a healthy pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook, uncovered, until almost tender. This should take no more than 10 minutes, and may take as little as 5, so keep an eye on them. If they overcook, they will lose their color and much of their delicate flavor.

3. Raise the heat to high and reduce the cooking liquid until it’s syrupy, stirring occasionally to be sure that the onions don’t scorch, about 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Add the cream and let it come back to a boil. Taste and adjust the salt, and add a liberal grinding of pepper and the mace or a few gratings of nutmeg. Simmer until the cream is thick and lightly coating the onions, about 2 minutes more. Transfer them to a warm platter or vegetable bowl, garnish with a light grinding more of pepper, and serve at once.

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