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Get Stuffed - Onions

Peeling back the layers

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The onion has been a staple in kitchens for 5,000 years

"Just chop those onions up for me."

"How do you want them chopped?"

"In a medium dice is fine."

It was my first shift working as a prep cook in a kitchen for a renowned catering company and I was determined to show off my stuff. I began to chop the onions, sea-sawing my chef knife expertly against the cutting board, slicing through the onion like butter when I was abruptly halted.

"No," he hollered, "not like that – you have to chop them so they are all of uniform size, like this."

He pulled the knife from my hand and in a few seconds had reduced the round bulb to little pieces of equal size.

"This way they will all cook at the same rate."

He handed my knife back to me with an exasperated look which was echoed in the six pairs of chef-school-trained eyes looking at me from about the room. I was mortified. The onion, the single, most used culinary vegetable world-wide and I had failed at its simple preparation. I was humbled from that point forward. There is a correct and efficient way to slice an onion which I will address at the end of this column.

So, why have I chosen the onion as this week’s topic of culinary wisdom? I wanted to feature something that would be symbolic of the New Year – a shedding of the old skin to reveal the new. The onion, with its many thin layers of skin, proved to be the perfect emblem.

The onion and its concentric circles were considered a symbol of eternal life in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs were buried with onions attached to various parts of their bodies. The onion is thought to have originated in East Asia but it now grows wild on most continents. It has been cultivated for the past 5,000 years. Ancient Greece revered the onion for both its culinary and medicinal properties. The ancient Olympian athletes were made to consume large quantities of onions as it was thought that they would "lighten the blood" for better athletic performance.

Before you scoff at the idea of eating an onion as a snack on the chairlift, there may be some scientific backup for the Greek’s theory. There are two powerful compounds that contribute to the onion’s makeup: sulphur – allyl sulphide makes you teary when cutting the bulb – and quercetin, an antioxidant common to tea and red wine. Quercetin is known to act as an anti-inflammatory due to its antioxidant and inhibitory effects on inflammation-producing enzymes. Perhaps eating lots of onions helps your muscles from becoming fatigued.

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