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Onions, Garlic, and Leeks: Our Stinky Allium Family Friends!

by Joe Wilkes
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Onions, garlic, and leeks the bane of the romantic evening, but the balm for so much else. These aromatic and pungent stars of the vegetable world are all members of the allium family and have a myriad of health benefits, both real and purported, not the least of which is all those germs you'll avoid when nobody will kiss you after you've eaten them. So, let's take a moment to salute these beautiful, bountiful bulbs which are delicious and nutritious, with a smell that's slightly vicious.

Onions

The onion (Allium cepa) has been a culinary staple for thousands of years. Many civilizations even worshipped them as symbols of eternity, because of their concentric rings. Ancient Greek Olympic athletes consumed onions before exercise, as it was believed they cleansed the blood. They were also taken along on long sea voyages by many cultures, as their high levels of vitamin C helped prevent scurvy. Onions have also been applied topically as home remedies to relieve congestion, fever, gout, and arthritis, as well as to speed healing of scars and burns.

In modern times, many studies have turned up evidence that there are some genuine health benefits to eating onions. Onions can help lower levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol that is responsible for clogging arteries. They are believed to lower blood pressure. They have been found to have antibacterial properties which can help kill salmonella and E. coli. They can reduce clotting, which can aid the circulatory system. They have anti-inflammatory properties which can help alleviate cough and cold symptoms, and onion extracts are even used in some asthma medications to provide bronchial relief. They are loaded with vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. And they are among the cheapest vegetables available, which is healthy for your pocketbook.

It's an extremely versatile vegetable, which can be sharp and tangy when raw, or sweet when cooked. Another great thing about onions is that almost none of their nutritional value is lost when cooked. One medium onion only has 44 calories, no fat, and 2 grams of fiber. A half a cup of chopped green onions only has 28 calories, no fat, and 4 grams of fiber. So for those of us keeping an eye on our diet, onions are a great way to get a lot of flavor for very few calories.

Cooking tip: Onions contain all kinds of different sulfur compounds. When the vapor from the sulfur hits your eye, sulfuric acid is created, which is why onions can make you cry. The best way to avoid tears is to rinse the onions after you cut off the ends. The milkier the juice oozing from the onion, the stronger the acid. By rinsing this off, you'll have fewer tears, and the onion will be less bitter in the recipe. Also, make sure you use a very sharp knife. This will help ensure that the juice stays in the onion instead of on your cutting board, and ultimately in your eye. Less juice, less vapor, less crying.

Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a spicy relative of the onion. Unlike the onion which is a discrete bulb, a head of garlic is a clump of bulbs, each clove an individual bulb. It has also been harvested for thousands of years for its flavor and also is one of the earliest known plants to be cultivated for medicinal reasons. It was thought by ancient cultures to be a great purifier, i.e., anything that smelled that bad had to kill whatever bad was inside you. And garlic is a frequent component in folk remedies throughout the ages, purported to cure impotence, madness, and tuberculosis. And anecdotal evidence that it wards off vampires and werewolves is very persuasive.

As with onions, garlic contains a high number of sulfur compounds, and when a clove is broken or chopped, the chemical reactions create a very pungent smell. Allicin, a sulfur compound found in garlic, is both an antibiotic and antifungal compound. It is also what gives garlic it's hot, spicy flavor. It and other sulfur compounds have been credited with researchers for a number of health benefits, including lowering of LDL cholesterol levels and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels; lessening atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries; reducing clotting of the blood; stabilizing blood sugar levels; and possible anti-cancer benefits. Studies have even shown that babies tend to breast-feed better when their mother eats garlic which shows up in her milk. And a clove of garlic only has 4 calories and no fat, so you can season your food to your heart's content.

Cooking tip: To get rid of garlic breath, chew some parsley. To get rid of the smell on your hands, wet your hands and rub them against the blade of a clean stainless steel knife (but don't cut yourself!). To get rid of the odor in your plasticware, freeze the offending item overnight. When you take it out of the freezer, the smell should be gone!

Leeks

Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) are also members of the onion family. Usually they are eaten for their white and light-green base, and some are cultivated for their bulbs, which are marketed as "elephant garlic." Leeks have enjoyed a long history, especially in Europe. In Wales, the leek is the national emblem, a symbol of courage and independence. They require much more care in their cultivation, as they are a biennial plant, like asparagus, and are therefore a little more expensive than their bulbous cousins.

Leeks recently received some good ink in Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure. In the book she revealed her recipe of Magical Leek Soup, a simple leek broth, which she would eat on a two-day fast to jump-start her diet. Their high content of manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate, and iron make them an excellent food for helping to stabilize blood sugar, probably the reason Ms. Guiliano's fasts are successful. (For more about the French diet, read Monica Ciociola's "How French Women Stay Slim—Without Starving.") Also, like garlic and onions, leeks are good at raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels while lowering LDL (bad) levels. There has also been some evidence that they lower blood pressure. At 38 calories per leek, with no fat, this is another great light vegetable.

Cooking tip: Because leeks must grow through two seasons before they are harvested, there is a fair amount of dirt, grit, and sand hidden in their folds. Before chopping your leeks, soak them in a sink full of cold water, so that some of the sand and grit will float out. Then chop from the white to the green, and rinse again, as needed.

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