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They’re back! It is always with great anticipation that I look forward to the first display of Vidalia onions on our market shelves each spring. I bought my first Vidalia onions of the year last week and I am one happy consumer.

Vidalia onions really are a big deal. They are the sweetest and most delicious onion and I am a huge fan. I am also fascinated by the history of this wonderful vegetable.

According to the Vidalia Onions.com website sponsored by M & T Farms, Vidalia onions were discovered by Moses Coleman in 1931. When Mr. Coleman harvested his onions in late spring of that year, he discovered they were sweet tasting and did not have a typical onion bite.

He must have been a master of marketing because he convinced folks to buy his onions at the unheard of price of $3.50 for a 50-pound bag. That was a lot of money during the depression and other area farmers thought Coleman was on to something. They planted the onions too and soon many farms in the area were growing these onions with a sweet, sweet flavor.

Their popularity continued to grow and the farmers wanted protection for their very special onion. In 1986, Georgia’s state legislature protected the name by establishing a 20-county area where the onions had to be produced to carry the name Vidalia. They also named the Vidalia Onion the Official Vegetable of the State of Georgia.

Besides being grown in Georgia, you may ask what makes an onion a Vidalia. They are actually a yellow Granex onion that likes a sandy loam soil and mild winter temperatures. It is also believed that the soil in this part of Georgia contains very little sulfur and the lack of sulfur contributes to the sweet taste. The onions also need steady rainfall and available irrigation if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. All of these conditions result in a great tasting onion that doesn’t make you cry or impart a bitter taste to your recipes.

There are three recipes that I have to make every spring and all during the Vidalia onion season which is usually ends in late August depending on the size of the crop in that year.

The first is a delightful hot dip that I sampled when my friend, Char, served it to a group of friends as an appetizer. It was love at first bite. Char said this recipe comes from the Friends of the Lied Center for Performing Arts cookbook entitled “Presentations.” Don’t even bother making this dip unless you use sweet onions or you will be sorely disappointed.

Gregg and I will be having baked Vidalia onions the next time we grill. They are so delicious whether you bake them in the oven or on the grill. If you serve steak with a side of these beauties you don’t need another thing to call it a great meal. Add a glass of Cabernet and you have a fantastic meal.

The third recipe is for caramelized onions with a minimum of effort. Even if I didn’t love caramelized onions I’d be tempted to pull out the slow cooker and make this recipe just for the aroma in the house. Use these dark brown onions and liquid to flavor soups, stocks and stews. They make a wonderful addition to risotto, a perfect pasta sauce, a wonderful steak topper and the world’s best pizza topping (first drain off the liquid). In fact, a simple pizza crust topped with these onions and goat cheese is the perfect summer meal.

Vidalia Onion Hot Fromage

1 cup chopped Vidalia onion

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup Swiss or Cheddar cheese, shredded

A few drops of Tabasco sauce

Cayenne pepper to taste

^pIn a bowl, mix onion, mayonnaise and cheese. Stir in Tabasco. Place mixture in an ovenproof casserole. Sprinkle a bit of cayenne on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Serve with Triscuits or your favorite cracker.

Baked Onions

1 sweet onion for each person

2 tablespoons olive oil for each onion

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Fresh or dried thyme (optional)

Salt and pepper

^pPeel onions carefully and slice in wedges. You can leave the onion in one piece and cut the wedges so the pieces open up while still attached to each other at the base or just toss the separated wedges in the baking dish. Place the pieces or the whole onion and the thyme in a baking dish that has been sprayed with vegetable oil cooking spray. Drizzle the olive oil over the onion and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in a 350-degree oven and bake until the onions are tender and golden. This usually takes 45 minutes, but different varieties of onion can take a longer or shorter time. You just have to watch carefully. Adjust seasonings and serve with your favorite grilled meat. Recipe Note: You can also place each onion on a piece of heavy-duty foil, drizzle with olive oil and season. Wrap the foil tightly around the onion and place on the grill. Grill, turning frequently until the onion is tender. It’s very hard to give an exact time as to how long this will take because the temperature of different grill surfaces varies greatly. I usually poke a long skewer through the foil and see if the onion is cooked through and tender after about 30 minutes of roasting.

Caramelized Onions

6 to 8 Vidalia or other sweet onions (approximately 2 and one-half pounds), 3 to 4 inches in diameter, stem and root ends removed, peeled and left whole

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

^pPlace the onions, butter and broth in a slow cooker set on low and cook until the onions are deep golden brown and very soft, 12 to 24 hours. Different slow cookers will take different amounts of time. It’s almost impossible to overcook this, so go for the deepest brown. Store in zippered plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer up to 1 year.

Quote of the Week: It’s probably illegal to make soups, stews and casseroles without plenty of onions. — Maggie Waldron

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Ellen Lund of Fremont is a freelance food columnist.

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