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Add shallots to sauces, soups and stews for savory flavor

In the stereotypical family, you’ll have the gruff dad and the long-suffering mom, the wiseguy son and the artistic, refined daughter. Well, the onion family is like that. Dad is the onion, tough and handy. Mom is the leek, bountiful and giving. The stinky son is garlic, and the refined daughter is the shallot.

French chefs are partial to the refined shallots, and with good reason. They’re sweeter and more delicate in flavor than onions or garlic. Onions are made of tough-walled concentric rings that separate easily, but the construction of shallots is more like a garlic clove’s clutch of outer leaves holding a fleshy interior. Shallots’ glassy membranes between the thin growth rings are just a film, so they tend to melt when cooked and spill their goodness into whatever dish you’re making.

The mildness of shallots also means they can be sliced thinly and used raw like scallions in fresh salads. In fact, the words “shallots” and “scallions” are cognates and derive from the name of the ancient city of Ashkelon on the coast of what is now Israel, where the shallot is native.

Shallots reproduce by multiplication. Single cloves planted in 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 the mix of genes that result when offspring are produced from seed. True shallots are not grown from seed.

While they can be found in our markets all year around, off-season shallots have been stored and are not as delicate and lively as smaller, younger shallots just pulled and sold with their tops attached. If the tops are still green and not yellowed or withered, they can be chopped and used like scallion tops. You’ll probably only find these at farmers’ markets, but these youngsters are the shallots prized by French chefs for their sweet, unique flavor.

Once the young bulbs begin to size up, they can be pulled and used anytime. When they’re fully mature, they are good keepers if kept in a dark, airy place. Don’t remove their papery skins. At the market, look for mature shallots that are firm, unbruised, with skins intact, no soft spots and no mold. They should feel heavy for their size.

Shallot sauces can be exquisite. They can be made quickly during the process of deglazing a pan used for pan roasting or sauteing meats on the stovetop. While the meat is cooking, mince a few shallots 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.

When the meat is done, remove the skillet from the oven or stovetop heat and place the meat on a dish. Pour off all but a teaspoon of fat from the skillet and place it on a stovetop burner at medium heat. Add the shallots, sauteing 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 2 to enrich the shallot sauce, but the sauce really needs nothing more than perhaps a grind of black pepper to be perfect.

Shallots are a great addition to soups and stews, as they flavor and thicken them. Shallots make a fine pickle. Braise them when slow-cooking lamb shanks. Whole peeled 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.

Chefs are anxious to find locally-grown young shallots, and regular customers of organic suppliers at farmers markets can get dibs on the new crop in summer. French gray shallots are the most prized variety in France, but the reddish-brown variety with the pinkish cast is the one most likely to be found at our best markets in California.

Instead of Wiener schnitzel or breaded veal cutlets, try this delicious version of veal scallops.

Veal Scallops with Sherry/Shallot Sauce

Makes 2 servings

6 2-ounce very thin veal scallops

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallot

⅓ cup sherry (Amontillado or similar)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

2 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 one 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. Saute 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. Correct the seasoning if necessary. 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 jeffcox@sonic.net

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