Sweet, fine-textured shallots are a secret of great cooks the world over. Shallots’ mild flavor echoes that of both garlic and onions. The authors of The Silver Palate Cookbook, a beloved cookbook from an influential 1980s gourmet food shop, refer to these “lusty members of the lily family” as the cornerstone of good cooking. Take heed, they say, for “a pantry without the onion and its cousins isn’t considered well-stocked.”
Shallots are especially prized in France and Asia, where they are used in sauces, dressings and compound butters, and to add flavor to simple dishes. Shallots are mild enough to eat raw, but robust enough to stand up to intense heat. In France, they are chopped into vinaigrettes and stuffings, and baked whole in tarts. In Southeast Asia, crispy, fried shallots top everything from soup to fish.
The same sugars present in onions are responsible for shallots’ affinity for browning. Slow cooking helps break down these sugars, yielding an intensely sweet and caramelized result that adds complexity and contrast to savory dishes.
Most of the shallots in your grocery store are round or teardrop-shaped and come in shades of pink and purple. French chefs favor young, brownish-gray shallots. The practice of harvesting younger, sweeter shallots is uncommon in North America, but if you grow your own, you’ll be able to pluck them from the ground as soon as you want. According to William Woys Weaver, author of 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, “This is not snobbery; it is exacting taste that understands how flavors work together like subtle shades of color.”
Because “all shallots are rather fickle and they do need pampering to come to full perfection,” Weaver recommends two varieties for home gardens. For its legendary rich flavor, he favors the long, narrow ‘Banana’ shallot (also known as ‘Eschalote Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou,’ which means “chicken-thigh shallot from Poitou”). For early harvesting, he favors ‘Griselle,’ which means “little gray.” Despite its smaller size, Weaver reports that one planted clove of ‘Griselle’ multiplies up to twentyfold, meaning “each bulb planted creates twenty more.”
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