Springtime onions are delicious by any name

This time of year, when young onions are bursting up out of the ground, I'm often asked, "What's the difference between a green onion and a scallion?"

My response? As far as I can tell, nothing. It's one of those "You say 'potay-toe,' I say 'potah-toe' " things. East Coast folks eat scallions; West Coast folks eat green onions. Same little onion; totally different name.

On a personal level, it's a minor issue between me and any food or cookbook editor I encounter east of the Mississippi. While writing "The Onion Book" several years ago, my Doubleday editor was in the scallion camp. We ultimately compromised: I gave her scallions, and she let my "cilantro" override her "coriander."

Although green onions are available all year long, you may be noticing that the spring-into-summer supplies are much higher in quality and appear in much greater abundance (read "affordable") than at any other time of year. Within the produce industry, any onions that are harvested while the tops are still green and the bulbs are small are sold as "green onions."

You've probably been encountering a greater supply at your local farmers' market. If you question the grower, you may discover that they're selling the thinnings from any number of onion varieties, such as Walla Wallas or yellow storage onions, that will end up in the market later this summer and fall when they've grown to maturity.

But for commercial purposes, white onion varieties are most often used for green onions. The most widely grown is the white Lisbon, which was developed specifically for use as a green onion. Other popular choices include: crystal wax, eclipse, white sweet Spanish, Southport, white globe and white Portugal.

Keep in mind that, botanically, green and globe onions differ only in the stage at which they're harvested. It's true that in a world of specialization, onion varieties have been bred to accentuate particular characteristics, such as durability in storage or sweetness. But all onions can be harvested fresh as green onions or left to mature into a globe. In any case, these tender young bulbs are indispensable — the kind of staple we stock as religiously as milk, eggs and chocolate fudge sauce.

THEN YOU GET BUNCH ONIONS. Once the bulb of a green onion begins to swell, you've got a bunch onion. It's not variety that makes a bunch onion, but maturity. Beginning in late May, onion growers are thinning their crops. These juvenile onions — be they Walla Walla sweet, Bermuda or your basic yellow storage — which have been pulled from the fields are typically bundled into bunches and brought to local farmers' markets, where savvy shoppers waste little time tracking them down. Vidalia and Walla Walla sweet onion growers are cashing in on the concept by marketing the thinnings from their maturing crops and selling them through the mail during the winter months for a lot of money.

At this young and tender stage, bunch onion bulbs are only 1 to 2 inches across. Depending on the variety, the bulbs will vary in color from pure white to a rich purple with thick yet tender stalks sporting a brilliant green. The flavor is still rather delicate, balanced squarely between what you expect from a green onion and a mature one. Thus, bunch onions are highly versatile. They're still tender and mild enough to be eaten raw, but they have enough character and developing flavor to withstand a bit of roasting, grilling or sauteing.

From now through the next month or so, you'll be able to obtain this wonderful onion to use in the accompanying recipes.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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