Though we have shallots in our stores all year around, mostly imported from Europe, now through November is when the 2017 California crop is arriving, plump and sweet, and ready to make you cry your eyes out.
Of all the members of the allium (onion) family, shallots contain a large amount of alkyl cysteine sulfoxides. When a shallot is cut or crushed, enzymes are released that change the sulfoxide into sulfenic acid, which irritates the tear ducts in your eyes.
The sulfoxide may also spontaneously change into thiosulfinate, a compound that’s responsible for the shallot’s distinct odor and great flavor, and is chockablock with health benefits, acting as an anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting agent. It also has cancer preventing properties, anti-asthma functions and the ability to lower bad cholesterol in the blood.
Shallots are a form of multiplier onion. Like garlic, Irish potato onions and bunching onions (and lilies, which are ornamental relatives of the onion family), single cloves planted in good, rich, organic soil will produce many new shallots joined together at the base.
This kind of reproduction is vegetative, where the babies are genetically identical to the mother clove, rather than sexual where offspring are produced from seed.
If you find shallots at the farmers market, you might ask the grower how he or she started the plants. If the grower says, “From seed,” walk on. Shallots are seldom grown from seed in California.
Shallots have a unique flavor very different from onions and garlic. They’re potently pungent when raw, but with a delicate sweetness and lovely tenderness that allows them to soften quickly and easily during cooking. The glassy membranes between the thin growth rings are just a film, not nearly as tough as onions.
This means they dissolve with long, slow cooking, turning into an indistinguishable liquid and suffusing soups, stews and other dishes with their unique flavor. The more I use them, the more I like them.
If you find a source of locally-grown shallots at a farm, roadside stand, or farmer’s market, they’ll be mature at this time of year. Mature shallots are good keepers if kept in a dark, airy place, but I try to use them up within a week or two of buying them. Don’t remove their papery skins when storing. At the supermarket, look for mature shallots that are firm, unbruised, with skins intact, no soft spots and no mold. Heft them — they should feel heavy for their size.
Incidentally, if you find locally-grown shallots in the spring or early summer, encourage the grower to bring you some with their fresh green tops still attached.
Until the tops begin to yellow and wither, they can be used much like chopped scallion greens.
By the way, the words shallots and scallions are cognate, derived from the same root: the Greek word Askolonion, a name for bunching onions that dates back to 300 B.C.
Shallots are part of many classic French sauces, including sauce bearnaise, a type of elaborate hollandaise.
These sauces include copious amounts of butter, but shallot sauces can be exquisite without all that butter, and can be made quickly during the process of deglazing a pan used for pan roasting or sautéing meats on the stovetop.
I’ll also cook pork roasts, whole chicken, leg of lamb and beef in a large skillet in the oven so I can capture the meat drippings.
While the meat is cooking, I mince a few shallots to make about a cup or more, and have them ready, along with beef stock and red wine for red meats, white wine and chicken stock for chicken, or dry vermouth for either. Here’s how to do it:
When the meat is done, turn off the oven, remove the skillet and place the meat on a dish. Place the dish in the oven with the door ajar to keep the meat warm.
Pour off all but a teaspoon of fat from the skillet and place the skillet on a stovetop burner at medium heat.
Add the shallots, sautéing them for about a minute. Then add a quarter cup of wine or vermouth and three-quarters cup of stock.
Turn up the heat until the mixture boils and stir, scraping up any pan drippings or congealed bits.
As the liquid reduces to the consistency of a thick sauce, turn down the heat to prevent scorching. When the mixture is thick and coats a spoon, pour it over the meat and serve.
Restaurant chefs at this point will often beat in a tablespoon of butter or two to enrich the shallot sauce, but I find the sauce needs nothing more than perhaps a grind or two of black pepper to be perfect.
Combine shallots in an all-onion-family medley with onions, garlic and leeks, then roast or sauté them to use around meats.
Braise them when slow-cooking lamb shanks. Whole shallot cloves can be tossed with a little oil and baked at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until they are caramelized, then served with grilled or roasted meats.
As for varieties, farmers who grow them locally will probably know their name. Some of the best are Dutch Yellow, French Red, French Gray (considered the finest flavored of them all) and a variety simply named Shallot, that has a brown skin with a pinkish cast.
Instead of Wiener Schnitzel or breaded veal cutlets, try this delicious version of veal scallops.
Veal Scallops with Sherry and Shallot Sauce
— Salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
6 2-ounce, very thin veal scallops
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoons minced parsley
Season the dredging flour with salt and pepper to taste, then dredge the scallops in the flour mixture, shaking off the excess and laying them on a plate.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a skillet until hot but not smoking. Dip the floured scallops in the egg, coating both sides and allowing excess egg to drip off.
Sauté the veal for about a minute on each side, until golden in color. Add the remaining oil to the pan as necessary and place finished veal on a platter in a warm oven.
Add the shallots and sherry to the hot skillet and ignite it with a match. Reduce heat and stir constantly until the flames go out.
Add lemon juice and butter and mix until the butter is melted and incorporated in the sauce. Pour the sauce over the veal scallops and sprinkle the parsley on top.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at email@example.com