We have reached that time of year when we are all happy to live in East Texas. The days are mild, trees are blooming and it just feels great to be outside playing. And we get to resume the regular activity of mowing the yard, a good opportunity for exercise that is free! Some people have to pay to go to the gym, but others have free activity waiting for them right in their own front yard. Early this spring as I was making my first mowing passes, I noticed the familiar and distinct aroma of onions. On closer inspection, there were lots of tiny bulbs sporting straight green chive-like leaves. I remember my dad years ago pointing these out growing in the forest and fields – and sometimes our yards – in East Texas.
Being the dietitian nutritionist that I am, I began to consider the possibility of bringing these native plants into the kitchen. And much to my delight I found that they work very well in a sauté with olive oil, garlic and other vegetables. They have a mild flavor much like the green onions you find in the store.
With some reading, I learned that the wild onions growing in my yard were a staple food of many Native American peoples including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Pawnee and Apache. These flavorful bulbs were used to season meats much as we would use domestic onions today.
Wild onions belong to the genus Allium as do our domestic onions. And while I am not aware on any studies that have been done on the nutritional benefit of wild onions, it is reasonable to believe that they would provide similar benefits as other members of the Allium family. Onions, garlic and scallions (no relation to Scallon) are believed to stimulate immune response and reduce systemic inflammation. Additionally, studies report that people who eat allium vegetables routinely have lower incidence of heart disease and cancer.
The entire wild onion plant is edible including the flowers, stalks and bulbs. Combine them with olive oil, orange juice, diced mango, fresh rosemary and a pinch of salt and pepper to make a delicious marinade for fish before grilling.
An important note to remember about harvesting wild plants is that there are some that are not edible and possibly poisonous. Some plants such as rain lily and crow poison look similar to wild onions but they have no onion smell. Your nose will tell you if the bulbs are wild onions. If they don’t smell like onion, don’t eat them. If you are harvesting from the yard, don’t use commercial weed control chemicals or other chemicals that are not rated for use in vegetable gardens.
Wild onions and garlic grow in every part of Texas, but here in East Texas there are more diverse species than elsewhere in the state. Some taste more like garlic and some more like onions. Wild onions don’t store well like their cultivated cousins. However, they do keep well in the ground so remember where you found that patch and long after the green leaves have died back, you can still dig up wild onion bulbs. Just be sure to leave some to multiply and reproduce for next year.
While we have the joy of spring here in East Texas, there are lots of things to do. Just remember to periodically stop and smell the onions. It may lead you to a very satisfying and healthy dinner.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin. The Polk Center provides education on diabetes, heart disease and weight loss and sponsors monthly classes and support groups on healthy lifestyle. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations featuring Tim Scallon and the celebrated Chef Manuel Marini. Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen
on cable in 46 cities and online at http://www.memorialhealth.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information. Call 639-7585 for more information.