There is a TV commercial for a local fast food chain in which a costumer effusively describes her favourite pasta dish. As she prattles about the shallots hitting the frying pan, the image cuts to what is going on behind the scenes. A much cheaper oniony vegetable is being sautéed. The lady of shallots is getting chopped green onions. These are also known as scallions but they are not real shallots.
Shallots are onions that went to grad school. They are a little more sophisticated, not quite as earthy. Theyve learned to be subtle in the kitchen.
Shallots are members of the allium family, one that includes onions and garlic. They look like small onions and are flat on one side. Like garlic, they grow in cloves. In Ireland one variety is sometimes called potato onions because it looks similar to small potatoes.
Both local and imported shallots are available here. Those from Asia are slightly larger, have reddish skins and taste a little sharper. Although they sting the eyes as much as onions do when they are chopped by hand, their flavour is not nearly as strong when cooked. Quebec-grown shallots have brown skins and are smaller.
The name shallot derives from Ashkelon, a city in Israel, where this vegetable was cultivated about 2000 years ago. However, they likely were grown even earlier in Asia and India.
Shallots are tasty raw in salads and excellent chopped very fine in salad dressings, particularly when paired with a few leaves of tarragon. They are also delicious when cooked and served in a mixed vegetable dish and they are essential to classic sauces such as Bearnaise. They are the only vegetable in the fiery Indian pulse dish called sambar.
A simple way to savour the flavour of shallots is in a compound butter. Boil a few shallots (about 4 ounces or 125 grams) in water for a minute. Cool them under running water. Peel the shallots and drain them well, squeezing out any extra water. Mash these to a paste (or run them through a food processor) and then pound this together with an equal amount of butter. Store this, covered, in the refrigerator. It is wonderful spread thinly on Melba toast or dabbed just before servingon grilled vegetables, meat and fish.