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Spice Girl: The Lady of Shallot

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By Lorette C. Luzajic

If you didn’t find my favourite wooden kitchen bowl filled with shallots, you’d know something was seriously wrong. Like balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Tabasco, and coffee, the humble shallot is an imperative in this lady’s kitchen.

The shallot, or allium ascalonicum, like garlic and onions, is a member of the lily family. It resembles a small red onion, though sometimes the shape is more elongated than round. Inside the peel are little bulbs, like garlic. Don’t confuse the shallot with the pearl onion, or with the scallion, which it is often called incorrectly. Allium ascalonicum derives from Ashkelon, one of the five cities of the Philistines in the Biblical land of Canaan. The plant is of Mediterranean and Near Eastern origin.

If you can’t find the shallot at your supermarket, or worse, you are surprised by a sky-high price, head toward an Asian marketplace and stock up. Shallots are often sold there in miniature onion bags and you can buy two or three of these for a buck. I find these absolutely delicious, but some gourmands prefer less common varieties, and you may have to head to a specialty store to see a range- there are dozens of varieties.

The flavour of the shallot is most versatile- it tastes at once like garlic and onions, but is miraculously free of the lingering unpleasant aftertaste. The breath that chagrins the garlic lover is absent. Even better, lengthy chopping and peeling sessions do not emit the eye-stinging gases- no more tears! So indulge fearlessly! This humble little guy makes everything gourmet.

Indeed, the shallot is one of the secrets of French cooking, and has long been a behind-the-scenes supporter of fancy French sauces like béarnaise, Bercy, bordelaise, beurre blanc, and an assortment of their vinaigrettes. The shallot can be roasted whole, caramelized, used in glazes, or diced atop the finest, freshest seafood or rare meats. Brittany, France, is the world’s largest producer of shallots, growing about 30 thousand tons annually.

The common variety that I find for bargain basement prices in Asian markets is used by the cupful in Asian cooking- Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese. Thinly sliced and deep-fried is a popular treat.

A few shallots a day may keep the doctor away- this plebian allium has traces of just about every nutrient mineral including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, zinc, copper, and a whole host of vitamins. While a garnish may not add significant quantities of these to your diet, throw a handful of chopped shallots into your rice or egg dishes, and into soups and salads.

There are thousands of recipes that include shallots in every cookbook and online, and just a few years ago I would have substituted an onion or a scallion or just omitted it, not having a clue how this ignoble beauty could enrich the flavours of a dish. The sweet, tangy bite gives life to dishes I’d always relegated to my "healthy but not palatable" file, like lentil salads. Go nuts and toss a few shallots in red wine vinegar with feta and I guarantee that that’s what you’ll be having on top of various veggies for the rest of the summer.

You can get fancy, and pull out some French cookery tomes and start pairing wines with shallot varieties. Or just chop a few shallots, soak in a bit of tequila, and sprinkle atop fresh oysters. If you’re really adventurous, there’s an interesting recipe for Murphy’s Blue Cheese and Caramelized Shallot Ice Cream - yes, ice cream.

I would definitely try that, but I’m not on my way over to Ireland right now and nor am I that patient in the kitchen to toil over my own. But if you have a taste for blue cheese, then pair it with shallots for a truly glorious flavour. Toss half a dozen shallots, finely chopped, into olive oil with a bit of cilantro and a bit of red wine vinegar. Crumple in a few chunks of the best blue cheese you can find, and throw this mixture atop a baked potato. Now this is living.


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