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Groundwork: State of the onion

Adrian Higgins' Monday blog posts return after a short winter pause. Lots to cover, onion- and seedwise.

Donna Stecker of Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia transfers seedlings of Super Star onions from the coffee cups (right) to their own four-inch pots. The handy platform is an inexpensive concrete-mixing tray from Home Depot. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

In the vegetable garden, the new season begins quietly in the cold months of January and February, whose hints of another garden year are the subtle swelling of buds on the trees, the tentative emergence of daffodils stems and the gradual lengthening of daylight hours.

Many people miss these cues, distracted by ads for Caribbean cruises and news coverage of a long-suffering rodent being pulled from a hole in Pennsylvania. Ah, but gardeners are plugged into this cycle of the natural world.

Recipe Included

It is still too early by three or four weeks to start most vegetable seeds, but it is neither too soon for gathering the apparatus required for this enterprise nor for ordering from seed catalogs. Here are a few of my favorite seed suppliers: Johnny's; Territorial; Kitchen Garden Seeds; Burpee; Fedco; Seed Savers; Renee's; Natural Gardening; Seeds from Italy, and Southern Exposure.

You can spend a small fortune buying multi-decked seed-starting light tables from horticultural supply places. But you can either make your own quite cheaply or use storage shelving from mass merchandisers. You also can convert old bookshelves, as long as they are at least four feet long (the length of your standard fluorescent shop light; no need for fancy growing lights). They key is to keep the lights just six inches above the top of the seedlings, and to put the lights on adjustable chains so that they can be raised as the plants grow.

Couple of tips: Put the lights on a timer, as the seedlings need 14 to 16 hours of light per day. Second, have a fan running gently somewhere in the vicinity. This will reduce the chance of a fungal disease called damping off (sudden deathly wilting of seedlings) and the air movement will cause the wee stems to become sturdier.

Seeds waiting to germinate. The lights are just six inches above the top of the foam cups and are kept on for 14 hours with a timer. Onion seeds should germinate about a week after sowing. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Seeds need a free-draining, inert soil mix in which to germinate. I have used carefully screened and well-rotted compost, but it's safer to use a seed-starting mix, which you can buy or make from a blend of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.

The seed-starting containers differ, some gardeners use purpose built trays with individual cells, I use a soil block maker from the United Kingdom (I'll explain this method in a future Groundwork blog post). At Green Spring Gardens, Cindy Brown, Donna Stecker and the volunteers sow about a dozen seeds in each of the used foam coffee cups.

All methods must share these features: a growing container that drains and a tray beneath. They will permit bottom watering to keep the mix moist without disturbing the seeds or seedlings. Drain holes prevent soil saturation, which would quickly rot the seeds. Until the seeds germinate, the containers should be covered with a clear plastic (film wrap or old dry cleaner bags work well). After germination, the bags should be removed and the seedlings misted daily. Don't water them directly from a watering can, the force of the water will dislodge them.

While it is still a little early for most starting seeds, members of the onion clan, as well as parsley (and cardoons and celery if we are being pedantic about it) benefit from starting from seed In January. This gives the onions enough time to bulb up in the summer. If you missed the boat, there's still time to order and get your parsley, onions and leeks going. I started my onions and leeks over the weekend.

The Green Spring gardeners are onion-and-leek lovers, so they have started a rather broad array of varieties (found through very good mail-order catalogs). Among the onions, they have chosen: a white pickling variety named Barletta; a yellow cippolo type named Borettana; an early large red globe named Mars, and a big globe onion named Super Star. Among the leeks: Bandit, stout and long-season; the tall and thick English heirloom named Prizetaker, and Blue de Solaize, which can be harvested right through until December.

Two-week-old onion seedlings, whose fragile roots must be handled with kid gloves when potting up. In fact, they shouldn't be handled at all. Always pick up seedlings by the leaf. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

These alliums were all started Jan. 12. Less than three weeks later, they are ready to be transferred from 12 in a coffee cup to one per four-inch pot. They must be well labeled, because onion and leek seeds and seedlings look alike.

Moving them is a delicate but deeply satisyfing operation. The Green Spring gang has the luxury of now placing them in a greenhouse until they go out into the garden in late March. For the rest of us, it will be a late winter of crammed tables under lights. Let's look forward to July and August, and this onion recipe from Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Baked Stuffed Onions
4 servings

If there were awards, like Oscars or Golden Globes, given to vegetables, onions would most certainly receive numerous nominations for supporting roles. Very rarely do they get to be the star and win the top prize. Even when they are the featured ingredient (onion rings, french onion soup), they still usually are an accompaniment to a main dish.
But this recipe elevates the bulb to star status. It features the sweet and tangy workhorse as the main course and predominant flavor. The time it takes to cook the bulgur depends on which grade you use: quick-cooking (Grade 1) will take less time than Grade 4.

MAKE AHEAD: The onions and bulgur mixture can be prepped up to the point of final baking; cover and refrigerate a day in advance.

Serve with a salad and good crunchy bread.

1 medium (about 2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large (unpeeled) sweet onions, each about 4 inches across
3 1/3 cups low-sodium beef broth
4 ounces pork breakfast sausage, such as Jimmy Dean Breakfast patties, broken into small pieces
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups bulgur (see headnote)
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a large rimmed baking sheet at hand, preferably lined with parchment paper or a silicone liner, and a shallow baking pan large enough to hold the 4 onions.

Scatter the squash cubes on the sheet. Drizzle them with the 2 tablespoons of the oil and the honey, then sprinkle them with the red pepper, dried sage and salt; toss to coat evenly. Roast for about 30 minutes, tossing them once or twice, until the squash is tender but not mushy. Let cool on the sheet while you prepare the onions; leave the oven on at 400 degrees.

Cut and discard a 1/2-inch-thick slice from the top of each onion. Trim just enough from the bottom of each onion so they can sit level. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the onions.

Stand the onions on a cutting board. Use a melon baller to scoop out most of the insides of each onion, transferring the inside bits to a medium bowl.

Place the onions in the shallow baking pan, then pour 1/3 cup of the beef broth around them. Cover with aluminum foil and roast for for 25 to 30 minutes. The onions should be tender, but still firm enough to stuff and cook longer without falling apart. Transfer to the stovetop (off the heat) and keep covered.

Coarsely chop about 1 1/2 cups of the onion insides, reserving any remaining onions for another use.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.

Add the chopped onions and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender, then add the garlic and sausage; cook about 4 minutes, stirring often and using a wooden spoon to break up clumps, until the sausage is no longer pink.

Add the bulgur, stir to coat evenly and cook for a minute or two. Add the remaining 3 cups of beef broth and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 10 to 30 minutes (depending on the grade of bulgur used) until tender.

Add the cooked squash to the saute pan, stirring to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Uncover the roasted onions; stuff each one with about 1/2 cup of the bulgur mixture. Place the remaining mixture around each onion in the baking pan. Drizzle the onions with oil, re-cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for 15 minutes.

Serve hot.

By Adrian Higgins  |  February 1, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork  
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Next: At the market with Deborah Madison

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