y onions are jealous. To my basket of sweet onions from Cévennes I have added a half-dozen beautiful pale pinkish brown shallots, firm and long like torpedo onions, and the Cévennes are unhappy. You have always begun great dishes with us, they cry, so who the heck are these intruders?
I’m ashamed to say that shallots have never been my first pick from the onion family. But living part of the year in France has changed some of groundless prejudices. I’d resist anything that was not Italian, which includes French cooking, French fashion, French bread, French dressing (bastardized in the 1950s before Gourmet magazine took hold of American cuisine), the French themselves, and the French language, which I now adore.
Italy had such a hold on my heart and soul that I could not imagine room for any other culture or country. Narrow-minded, yes, but where do all roads lead? Not to Paris or Munich or Buenos Aires?
Still, in my little French open market this week — it’s my tiny replica of Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori — I wondered if I shouldn’t branch out and play with shallots. My mother, a food maverick, fearless and original, knew shallot tricks back in the days when most cooks were perfecting their macaroni and cheese or tuna casserole.
To tempt us finicky children into the realm of vegetables, she’d serve us fish, never a kids’ favorite, masked with a rich, satiny béarnaise. For cauliflower, she’d make a shallot and cheddar (Mimolette works fine) sauce in which we could dip the little steamed flowerettes (bouquets, she called them) to make them more appealing.
She began many soups and stews with sliced shallots, which my grandfather grew just for her in his little garden in the country. Not easy to find shallots in Texas at that time, along with fresh herbs of any kind for the many dishes she loved to create.
Even so, I eschewed shallots, choosing the sweet Texas onions that one could eat like an apple (as the man who first introduced them to the culinary world did in the office of the CEO of a major supermarket chain; bit right into it and the CEO said, “Bring me all you can grow… fast…”). And of course there were Vidalia onions from Georgia, much like my coveted Cévennes, or the wonderfully sweet dark purple Italian onions from Tropea.
These days I’m mad for shallots. I religiously plant my shallot bulbs each autumn for the spring’s bounty. Like loaves and fishes, they multiply yearly on their own. I also search for fresh tarragon leaves to make a perfect béarnaise.
Small shallots are tastier than huge ones and the best are pinky brown and very firm. Though they’re of Asian origin, French chefs say the best are from Brittany. Then again, French chefs often think that Perigourd truffles can’t be equaled — while anyone with a palate knows that Alba’s white truffles and even those of Umbria can run circles around Perigourd’s black tubers.
I often think a little minced shallot mixed in with butter for a tagliatelle ai tartufi might just be a pleasant marriage of two cultures. In keeping with experiments to rid myself of unfounded and unpleasant food prejudices, I’m now experimenting now with sliced shallots along with the anchovies on my Sunday night pizza Napoli.
How refreshing to lose culinary bigotry! What new roads! What expansion of the mind! But… wait just a minute. You’re not actually putting goat cheese instead of mozzarella di bufala on my pizza! No way, Hervé.