In the spring of 1931, one of the first farmers to plant onions in Toombs County, Georgia, made an unexpected discovery: Bulbs that were typically sharp-flavored when planted elsewhere turned sweet in the low-sulfur soil of his fields. He started telling neighbors and selling bags from the back of his truck. Word spread about “those onions from Vidalia,” the local Piggly Wiggly stocked them, and the easy-eating allium gained rock-star veggie status around the South. “I have been eating these sweet onions ever since I had teeth, or so they tell me,” says Adam Evans, chef and owner at the newly opened Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham, Alabama. Vidalias are typically available starting in April, with the season continuing through summer. “They have a higher water content, so they’re always more tender than other onions,” says Evans, who grew up in Muscle Shoals. “The texture is lighter, and they don’t have the overpowering flavor yellow onions can have.” This makes Vidalias a perfect pairing for early spring salads. You can also caramelize them and serve over crisp fingerling potatoes, or fry them for off-the-charts-delicious onion straws. Or make a relish that’s an ideal accompaniment for any protein you can think of (see recipe). “It’s one of those things you can put together quickly,” Evans says. Fresh Vidalias—they should have unblemished outer skin and a firm texture, and in early spring may even have green stalks attached—will keep in the refrigerator, wrapped in a paper towel, for several weeks. And if you’re short on time, just pull them out of the produce drawer, slice, and serve. “My mom and grandparents always had raw sliced Vidalia onions on the table, seasoned only with salt and pepper,” Evans says. “To this day I just love them—for both their flavor and their small-town Southern roots.”
THE CHEF RECOMMENDS:
Grilled Vidalia Onion Relish
Yield: 2–3 cups
2 Vidalia onions, sliced ½-inch thick
4 tbsp. olive oil
¼ cup champagne vinegar
¼ cup water
1 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. ground coriander
¼ cup fresh thyme
Place onion slices on a sheet pan, brush with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Set aside and heat a charcoal grill or grill pan on high.
In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water, sugar, coriander, 1 tbsp. pepper, and salt to taste, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 minute, then pour into a mixing bowl and set aside to cool.
Grill onions about a minute on each side, until slightly charred but not cooked through. Remove, return to sheet pan, sprinkle with thyme, and let cool.
Chop onions into bite-size pieces, and toss with vinegar mixture. Serve at room temperature. Refrigerate for up to a week.
TIP: “This relish pairs well with any protein you want, or with raw oysters in place of mignonette.”