A Chef’s Guide to the Flavors of Spring: Alliums
Spring and sunshine have brought with them the flavor of the season— Alliums. These members of the onion vegetable family are groups of flowering plants that sometimes have bulbs at the base and long stalks (scapes) that yield edible flowers.
There are many allium varieties. We’re talking chives, ramps, scallions, onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic, which are now about to take center stage in every chef’s spring kitchen. After months of heavy winter cooking, their gentle, somewhat sweet, and herbal flavors warrant a fanfare.
But although spring alliums have a flavor and texture similar to regular onions or garlic, each still holds its individual flavor and appearance. So let’s take a leek at each member’s distinct taste notes as they ramp up the kitchen counters. (See what we did there?)
They are similar to garlic chives but chives are more reminiscent of onions. Wild chives are prevalent in Maine as well as other parts of the US and Canada. They are fast-growing herbs typically planted in the early spring or late summer and can be harvested every 60 days.
They have tubular hollow leaves rather than the flat, grass-like leaf of garlic chives. They’ve become a ubiquitous garnish, thanks to their oniony and somewhat garlicky smell and flavor; their pretty pale purple flowers are edible as well.
Chives are delicious when used raw, chopped and sprinkled over a spring salad, tossed into soups such as Spring Pea Soup, and added to just about any dish that needs a flavor boost.
Otherwise known as wild leeks, ramps are one of the first green crops to appear as the soil begins to defrost in the spring. They grow in patches in the rich, moist deciduous forests in eastern North America. Long, oval green leaves with thin delicate bulbs and a scarlet to maroon base characterize them.
The leaves, up to the bottom white leaf stalks are edible, and the flavor is a powerful blend of garlic and onion. Cooking them on the other hand softens their flavor. Sprinkle them over pizza, process them with pesto, or make some Ramp Quiche for a delightful springtime brunch!
Scallions, Green Onions & Spring Onions
Recognizing these three can be a little tricky. They’re almost the same thing (well, unless you are an onion enthusiast and farmer), with them being considered young onions. The only difference between the three is their level of maturity. They are available all year round but are at their peak during spring and summer. These are native to central China but they may be cultivated almost anywhere.
Scallions are the younger variety. Consider it the “toddler” version of the three, with long, straight green stalks, and no bulb-like base (just a small portion of white base). The white base and green stalk can be eaten raw and have a mild oniony, and slightly spicy flavor. They can be cooked whole or chopped and even used as a substitute for chives. Chop them up as a garnish to any dish that calls for a hint of crisp. Try a Smoky Guacamole with Charred Scallions.
Meanwhile, green onions are more like a “pre-teen onion,” that have long, green, delicate stalks with slightly defined slender white bulbs and an onion-like flavor that is still very mild than that of a mature onion, but slightly stronger than scallions. For an Asian-inspired appetizer, try these Asian Shrimp Pancakes!
Spring Onions, on the other hand, is what we can consider a “teenage onion.” They are planted at the end of the summer so that they can grow over the winter and be harvested in the spring. Spring Onions contains a bulb that is slightly rounded and more defined and larger than green onions.
It also has the sharpest flavor of the young onions with a little more bite than green onions, but sweeter and milder than the red or yellow onions typically used in cooking. Feeling adventurous? Try a Tartine-Style Asparagus & Spring Onion Croque Monsieur.
In case we’ve left you a little puzzled, and simply want to know one thing, yes, all three can be used interchangeably.
These look like giant scallions—more like a Hulk-ified version in fact. They are native in Europe and Africa but have been naturalized in many areas throughout the world including the Southeastern region of the US plus New York State, California, Ohio, and Illinois. They have leaves that are thick, flat, and folded, with a flavor that is mild, oniony, and slightly sweet.
Leeks are amazing when added to soups. Puree their white root ends to your soups or add the dark green ends for an aromatic flavor to your stockpots. Potato Leek Soup sounds just like a good lunch idea to greet the spring season!
These are small bulbs that resemble an onion. They are native in Asia, however, in America, shallots are mostly grown in the South, particularly in the southern parts of Louisiana. A distinguishing feature is that they are more elongated and a single bulb contains two or more cloves or segments. The skin can be reddish, brownish, or grayish and the flesh is almost white or purple in hue.
The flavor of shallots is more delicate than that of onion. When compared to red or white onions, it is a little less sharp with garlic undertones and has a more watery flavor. When cooked, however, the flavor becomes sweeter.
They are commonly used in Asian cuisines and in more refined French and Italian dishes. Hence, why they’re sometimes considered “gourmet onions.” You can use shallots in a number of ways, including fresh salads, pickles, vinaigrettes, add them to gravies in place of onions or try this Beef Tenderloin with Roasted Shallots, serve it with a salad or roasted vegetables!
Also known as spring garlic but really, it’s just an immature garlic. It is harvested before bulbs and cloves can form but the size varies depending on when it’s been harvested. Garlic production in the United States is primarily concentrated on Gilroy, California, dubbed the “garlic capital of the world.”
The entire plant is edible and it has a milder flavor than mature garlic. They are tasty and crisp, but if you find that you have tough stalks, keep them for stocks.
Green garlic can be used in the same way as green onions or typical garlic, bearing in mind that they are stronger than the former and milder than the latter. It has a nutty, oniony flavor and isn’t as spicy as regular garlic.
Cooking them reduces the intensity of their flavor. They can be used in place of shallots, onions, or garlic. Add them to any raw or cooked food as a garnish. Try this Indian side of Coriander Garlic Chutney for your spring menu.
Garlic scapes are typically grown in Northeastern US and Canada and are long, thin and curvy vibrant green shoots that grow from the garlic bulb. They are all over the place, winding in every direction. But they are a delicious early summer treat.
The scapes can be tough and herbaceous when raw so they are best served thinly as a garnish, or pureed in pesto, soups, and sauces, or sautéed and stir-fried. However, when cooked until soft, they become distinctly sweet with a soft texture similar to asparagus. For the ultimate springtime dressing, blend them with your Green Goddess Dressing!
Storing Spring Alliums
Alliums are best when they’re fresh. But they will last for about 3-5 days stored in the fridge, wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed in a plastic bag or container. Alternatively, they can be placed in a jar with a couple inches of water and covered in a plastic bag. Just do not forget to change the water every day or two.
When it comes to shallots, it’s preferable to keep them out of the fridge. Store them in a cool, dark location, such as your cupboards.
Spice It Up
It’s simple to add complexity to your soups, stews, dips, quiche, salads, etc, with all these allium varieties! Here are more recipes to spark ideas for your restaurant.
Riviera Produce is here to supply you with firm, plump allium bulbs, and bright green, sturdy spring allium stalks fresh from the fields to your restaurant. Check out our spring 2022 seasonal guide for more of what you need!