No doubt you've eaten shallots, that mildflavored member of the onion and larger lily family. Shallots have always been a favorite with the French. From the most elegant of French cuisine to the humblest of cottage cookery, shallots (or eschalots) take a front place in flavoring accents.
Should you wish to cook with shallots (botanical name Allium ascalonicumm from the town of Ascalon in Palestine) you must first find a produce shop that sells them. They'll no doubt be marketed by the ounce and be highpriced. A quick guess is $6 to $7 a pound.
You can get around the price, however, by growing your own. It's unbelievably easy. First, they take little space. You can edge a flower garden with them, for example, or run rows alongside a backyard walk. They do require a sunny spot, however.
In addition, you can perpetuate your shallot growing by drying enough bulbs from your first experience and plant them the next season. The bulbs store well and keep for at least a year in a cool, dry place. If you are very ambitious, you might try raising two crops a year: spring and fall.
Shallots require dry, light, fairly rich soil with good drainage.
Some clean sand can be added to eliminate packing down. The soil needs to breathe because compacted soil might encourage the onion maggot, which is perhaps the only enemy of shallots. Fresh manure might do the same, so use only aged manure. A good combination would be aged manure, compost, average soil, and sand.
A classic garden book, written by Bernard McMahon in the early 1800s, gives these directions for the actual planting:
"Prepare the bed to four feet wide. Divide your shallots into offsets. (You will see that good-sized shallots are made up of clovelike sections.) Peel the skin slightly and separate; then plant the cloves singly, pointed side up, as early as possible in the season. (This would be after the frost is out of the ground). Barely depress each clove. (I leave at least two-thirds of the clove above ground.)"
McMahon adds that fall planting -- say, as late as November -- will yield much larger shallots if done in dry rich ground. However, my Minnesota winters do not yield the crop I get with spring planting.
More than one reliable garden book suggests that shallots are herbs. As an herb grower, I classify them thus. Early herbalists classified them as kitchen pot herbs and even as a "sweet" herb. Somehow, this question of classifying does not explain the lack of shallot information in current garden books.
After setting the bulbs neatly into the prepared ground, watch for sprouting which comes relatively fast. The tiny spears are tubular, bluish green, and resemble onion leaves. You may snip a few spears for accenting green salads or decorating cream salads.
Only average moisture while growing is required. When the tall tubular leaves begin to droop and yellow, this indicates maturing. When the greenery starts drying back, dig gently so as not to damage the crop. If you want to leave some shallots in the ground for future harvesting, be sure to mark the spot as eventually all signs of leaves and stems disappear.
Drying consists of spreading out your crop, leaves and all, in an airy, protected, partially shaded spot. If you'd like a shallot "rope" to hang and decorate your kitchen, now is the time to braid up such an Old World way of storing. For a more modern way of keeping them, use mesh bags for circulation of air.
Test your bulbs to be sure they are quite moisture free. Rub off any scruffy skin first and place them in a cool, dry place.
Shallots can be used anywhere a mild onnion flavor is desired. Salads, soups , stews, fowl, fish, and casseroles benefit. Pickled shallots are delicious as well.An excellent gourmet vinegar can be made by simply dropping a bulblet or two in a pint of good white vinegar. Let it brew for a couple of weeks in the kitchen.
The tiniest of bulblets can be frozen with fresh green peas. You'll like them.
Here are some sources for shallot seed:
Comstock-Ferre, PO Box 125, Wethersfield, Conn. 06109
L. E. Jardin-Du Gourmet, West Danville, Vt. 05873
J. A. Demonchaux, 225 Jackson, Topeka, Kan. 66603
Farmer Seed and Nursery, 818 N.W. 4th Street, Faribault, Minn. 55021
Yankee Peddler Herb Farm, Highway 36N, Brenham, Texas 77833
The Yard Patch at Jubilee, 3726 Thomasville Road, Tallahassee, Fla. 32312