As I walked through the Sebastopol farmers market on a warm Sunday morning, I noticed a basketful of plump shallots.
The crop was just starting, the vendor told me, which means we should have plenty for the fall and winter holidays.
A bit later, I spotted another farmer with shallots, deeply colored red ones. Ahhh, it's going to be a great season.
Shallots are one of the culinary alliums, a cousin of garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, ramps and chives. The shallot is milder than both garlic and onions and can insinuate itself into a wide variety of dishes without overwhelming other ingredients.
It is suave and elegant, with an appealing subtlety. When it is used with other alliums, any dish blossoms with a full spectrum of flavors, which is why I always add shallots of my French onion soup.
Shallots are essential in most vinaigrettes; it is best to let them macerate in the vinegar for a few minutes before adding other ingredients. Roasted, they are luscious and creamy and can be folded into soup, vegetable purees and sauces, or combined with eggs and cream for a lovely savory flan.
Shallots should be stored in a cool, dark and somewhat airy space. Keep them away from potatoes, and do not put them into plastic bags. A small basket, a cloth bag or a wire basket should keep them fresh for several weeks, provided the room is not warm.
For more shallot recipes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit this column's companion blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
This hot and tangy dish is inspired by one I found in "Lilies of the Kitchen" (St. Martin's Press, 1986) by Barbara Batcheller, who found her inspiration in North Africa. It is best as part of a buffet that includes roasted meats and poultry. I like to serve whole milk yogurt alongside to tame some the wilder flavors.
<strong>Lentil Salad with Shallots and Serranos</strong>
<em> Makes 4 to 6 servings</em>
1/2 pound (about 1 1/4 cups) green or black lentils, rinsed and drained
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
— Kosher salt
6 large shallots, trimmed, peeled and cut into lengthwise quarters
2 or 3 serranos, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin lengthwise julienne
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
— Black pepper in a mill
3 tablespoons mildly flavored olive oil, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley or cilantro
Put the lentils into a large saucepan, cover with water by at least two inches, season generously with salt, add the garlic and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender but not falling apart, about 30 minutes. Drain and transfer to a serving bowl.
While the lentils cook, prepare the dressing. Put the shallots and serranos into a medium bowl, season lightly with salt and several turns of pepper, add the vinegar and lemon juice and toss gently. Set aside.
When the lentils are done and have cooled slightly, add the shallot mixture and the olive oil. Toss, taste and correct for salt and acid; if it is too tart for your tastes, add a bit more olive oil. Add the parsley or cilantro and serve warm or at room temperature.