If you’re the sort of cook who reads a recipe that calls for three cloves of garlic and instead tosses in seven, you are doing a great favor for your health — if maybe not your breath. The same goes for onions, chives, leeks, ramps and shallots. All of these are alliums — a Latin word meaning garlic — and they’re all packed with antioxidants and nutrients that are strong allies in the fight against a slate of diseases.
Dr. Graham Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center
Alliums’ sharp smell and taste derives from the sulfur-containing compounds they’re made from. These compounds are also what give them many of their crucially important disease-fighting qualities, says Dr. Graham Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center. “Organosulfur compounds are anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-microbial and anti-blood clotting. This means that alliums are heart-healthy by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. Organosulfur compounds are also thought to be what gives alliums their anti-cancer qualities. Good evidence shows that alliums reduce the risk of stomach and colon cancers, especially,” Dr. Colditz says.
As if that weren’t reason enough to ask for extra onion in your salad, there’s more. Alliums also contain quercetin, an antioxidant compound found in berries, green tea and red wine. Quercetin helps fight inflammation, heart conditions, bladder infections and diabetes. And it eliminates free radicals — atoms with chemical properties that can lead to damage in cells’ DNA, Dr. Colditz explains. “Such compounds can clear out these cells and protect them from the free radicals that we get from our environment, fundamentally reducing the damage that free radicals are doing,” he says. “So many of our disease processes are driven by the accumulation of damage to cells, but antioxidants can help clear free radicals as part of a healthy, protective diet.”
Dr. Colditz recommends getting at least one serving of alliums a day for maximum health benefits. “Many recipes already call for alliums. These are good for any time of day: Try chives, leeks or shallots in a morning omelet, onion slices in your sandwich at lunch and garlic in just about anything at dinner! These vegetables come in an array of varieties, and all of them are good for you.” Garlic lovers, rejoice!
Leeks resemble large, flat green onions. Their broad emerald leaves give way to a pale green and creamy white base where their mild, onionlike flavor lies. Even when they’ve been cooked the leaves are inedible, but they can add flavor to stocks or soups, much in the way that bay leaves do. Embrace the warmer temperatures with a springlike leek-and-lemon soup, or braise leeks in white wine and garlic for a simple yet elegant side dish.
Sweet, sharp, pungent, mellow. All of these adjectives describe onions, so it’s no wonder they’re used in recipes from just about every corner of the world. Nearly 90 percent water, onions impart flavor and texture with minimal calories, but they do bring doses of vitamin C, folate, vitamin B6 and potassium. As is true for most vegetables, the darker varietals come with the biggest nutritional impact.
First things first: Yes, scallions and green onions are the same vegetable. (Spring onions are not.) Scallions are reminiscent of white or yellow onions with subtle peppery notes, whereas spring onions are sweet. At the store, look for scallions that are firm from bulb to tip; avoid those that are slimy or wilted. All except scallions’ stringy ends can be used for cooking: The green parts are mild and bring texture as a garnish to foods like potato dishes and soups. The stronger white ends can hold their own even under intense heat, such as roasting and stir-frying.
If a recipe calls for a quarter cup of onion, what should you do with the rest of it? Trick question: You should buy shallots instead. They can take the place of red or yellow onions (they’re a little sweeter and milder than both), and they’re small — smaller than a golf ball — so you can buy just a little bit at a time. Like garlic cranked up to 11, shallots bring a rich depth of flavor to dishes, not to mention antioxidants, folate and vitamin A.
Ramps are not easy to come by. They’re harvested from dark, densely forested areas, and they’re only available for a few weeks — look for them in farmers’ markets or high-end grocery stores from now through the beginning of June. The good news is you can eat every part of a ramp, from their slender white bulbs to their gorgeous green leaves. But use them thoughtfully: At $20 per pound, they are by far the most expensive allium on this list. It’s the easiest preparations that really allow ramps to sing — they’re a perfect harmony of garlic and onion — like grilling with olive oil, salt and pepper.
In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.