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.