The Onion Family

The Onion Family

Allium vegetables – the ones from the onion family – form an important part of our diet. In addition to regular onions and spring onions, they include shallots, garlic, leeks and chives. Allium is the Latin word for garlic. These highly versatile vegetables are high in beneficial sulphur compounds, which is what gives them their distinctive smell, taste and, of course, tear inducing pungency.

As well as forming the basis of many delicious dishes, these vegetables are also capable of being the star attraction – take a look at our recipes below.

Regularly eating vegetables from the allium family has a wide range of health benefits that include lowering cholesterol, reducing blood pressure and offering cardiovascular protection, providing anti-inflammatory effects and anti-cancer activity.

Originally from Central Asia and the Middle East, onions have been cultivated for a thousand years. In addition to culinary uses, they were also prized for their antiseptic properties and were used in mummification in Egypt. 
The onions that you buy at the shops are dry or ‘storage’ onions that have a stronger flavour and thick, papery skins in comparison to fresh ones.

Pungent yellow onions are the best long term keepers, perfect for soups and stews. Red onions have a sweeter taste which makes them ideal for use in salads and sandwiches, but they won’t last as long. White pearl onions are the smallest type of bulb onion and a favourite for pickling.


The name can be traced back to the Crusaders from Ascalon in Israel where shallots originate from. Like garlic, they grow as bulbs that are divided into a minimum of 2 cloves, which grow in clusters. Unlike other types of alliums, shallots have a tapered shape and a copper brown, red or grey colour. The vegetable has a sweet, mild flavour that sits somewhere between onion and garlic, which is why shallots are often favoured by professional chefs.


Garlic originally comes from Central Asia and has always been known for its medicinal as well as culinary uses. Of all the allium vegetables, it has the strongest taste. Garlic is a hardy perennial that grows as a bulb, with each bulb being made up of individual cloves. Growing garlic is super easy, and there are lots of varieties for autumn planting. Just plant a clove in the ground and wait for the following autumn.

Spring Onions

Spring onions are nothing more than the immature plants of a bulb onion that’s been harvested before the bulb has had a chance to fully develop. The white root bulb and the green tops can both be eaten. Spring onions are a tasty accompaniment to salads or a garnish for soups, and are perfect to add to quick stir fries.


Also known as ‘poor man’s asparagus’, leeks look like enormous spring onions and are the largest vegetable of the onion family, able to reach up to 60cm in lengths and 5cm in width. The leek can be traced back to ancient Egyptian cooking, and it was a favourite vegetable of Emperor Nero who was convinced that leek soup benefitted the quality of his voice. Leeks feature heavily in French, Dutch and Belgian cuisine and complement well with potatoes.

Unsurprising given their appearance, chives are a hardy perennial and closely related to grass. Together with tarragon, parsley and chervil, chives complete the classic French herb seasoning mix known as fine herbesSnip them with scissors straight from the garden or window sill and add with sour cream to baked potato or to give the finishing touches to dips, salads and soups.







Leek Gratin

Serves 4-6


2 leeks, washed and sliced into 2cm rings
90g of unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, sliced
60g of flour
600ml whole milk
1 bay leaf
150g of mature cheddar, grated
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, (optional – omit for vegetarian)
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
Tabasco, to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Topping: 2 tbsp Panko breadcrumbs, 1 tbsp sunflower seeds, freshly ground black pepper


Place a large frying pan over medium heat and add 30g of the butter. Once melted, add the leeks and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until the leeks have started to soften but remain bright green. Set aside.

Gently bring the milk to a boil in a small pan with the bay leaf – keep an eye on it as it bubbles over quickly.

Meanwhile, place a saucepan over medium heat with the flour and remaining butter inside. Use a spatula to stir the ingredients into a paste (a roux) and cook for a minute to cook out the raw flour taste. Whisk in the warmed milk (discarding the bay leaf) bit by bit until you have a thick, smooth sauce.

Beat in the cheddar, reserving a big handful for the crumb topping. Once fully melted into the sauce, add in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat an oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.

Stir the leeks into the sauce, then tip out into an ovenproof dish and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs, remaining grated cheese and sunflower seeds and cover with a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.

Cook in the oven for 30–40 minutes and serve up hot.

French Onion Soup

Serves 4


50g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1kg onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 tsp sugar
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tbsp plain flour
250ml dry white wine
1.3l hot strongly-flavoured beef stock
4-8 slices baguette (depending on size)
140g gruyère, finely grated


Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large heavy-based pan. Add the onions and fry with the lid on for 10 mins until soft.

Sprinkle in the sugar and cook for 20 mins more, stirring frequently, until caramelised. The onions should be really golden, full of flavour and soft when pinched between your fingers. Take care towards the end to ensure that they don’t burn.

Add the garlic cloves for the final few minutes of the onions’ cooking time, then sprinkle in the plain flour and stir well.

Increase the heat and keep stirring as you gradually add the wine, followed by the beef stock. Cover and simmer for 15-20 mins.

To serve, turn on the grill, and toast the bread. Ladle the soup into heatproof bowls.

Put a slice or two of toast on top of the bowls of soup, and pile on the gruyère. Grill until melted. Alternatively, you can cook the toasts under the grill, then add them to the soup to serve.