I often think of the garden as a classroom that every year offers at least one new course. For the coming season, one of the subjects will be shallots. The seed for this idea was planted last summer on a visit to the garden of Nate and Berta Atwater in Little Compton, Rhode Island. When I arrived on July 25, Nate had just finished laying out freshly dug shallots to dry, spreading them on a screen that spanned the corner of the garden fence. His smile on greeting me reflected a gardener’s pride of accomplishment. I thought, here is a garden vegetable that I have never grown, something new to learn.
To date I’ve learned that the shallot is a member of the onion family, the Amaryllidaceae, with characteristics of both onions and garlic. Shallots resemble garlic in that they produce multiple (two or more) cloves when the outer papery skin is removed. Skin color of the cloves varies from copper to gray, the inner flesh typically off-white with a greenish tinge. When you slice a shallot clove, your eyes sting and water, like onions, a reminder of their kinship.
A staple in Mediterranean, French, American, and Flemish cuisine, shallot flavor has been described as “delicate, subtle, and intense, all at once”. Many cooks describe them as sweeter than the pungent onion, others call the flavor “buttery”, and still others describe a “mild garlicky flavor”. These variations are likely explained by differences in shallot varieties from one kitchen to the next.
How might I use the shallots that I grow? I learned from Berta Atwater, a gourmet cook, that shallots will add flavor to salad dressings, stir-fries, and sauces. They can be sauteed with vegetables and meats, sliced into salads, and roasted to bring out their sweetness. Shallots are also wonderful in risotto or other delicate rice and noodle dishes that require only a hint of onion flavor.
While shallots can be grown from seed, the interval between sowing and harvest is between 85 and 140 days, depending on variety. Starting with “sets”, cloves removed from bulbs grown the previous growing season, reduces this maturity period substantially. With the exception of the French gray shallot (also called “griselle”, the only true shallot, according to many) that must be fall planted, shallot sets (cloves) can be planted in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. It is important to get them in early enough so that they experience a period of cool soil temperatures. Winter is the time to order shallot sets to assure that they arrive in time for early planting.
Of the 15 seed catalogs that I have accumulated this winter, only four offer shallot sets (see Sources list below). Among these few sources, most limit their offerings to only one or a few varieties without a clear explanation of their selection criteria. This is where advice from experienced New England gardeners would really help out.
The Cook’s Garden catalog offers one variety, French Demi-long, describing it as “a plump tear-drop-shaped bulb with a rich coppery sheen and intricate subtle flavor.” I could not find any additional information regarding this variety, but being a French pear-shaped shallot, it should have a more pronounced flavor than varieties with a round shape.
Vermont Bean and Seed Company carries two varieties, one that they call “Extra Select Premium Grade” and the other, Holland Red. And Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells Pikant, a prolific and bolt-resistant variety that lasts long after harvest.
Another mail order source for spring-planted shallot sets is the Maine Potato Lady. Offerings include Picasso Dutch, a new, improved shallot with rich, red-brown skin and crisp pink-tinged flesh. The mild flavored cloves are considered excellent for fresh use in salads or sautéed veggies. They also store well after harvest.
Yellow Moon Dutch, also sold by Maine Potato Lady, matures early and stores well. It has a sweet delicate flavor and aroma, according to catalog copy.
I can see that learning all there is know about growing shallots will take several growing seasons. I can begin with a few of the available spring-planted varieties, then plant some French gray shallots (also available for the first time from Maine Potato Lady) in the fall. New varieties can be added each year, poor performers dropped, and before you know it, I’ll be just like my garlic-growing friend, Ron Kujawski, who this year grew 30 varieties of garlic in his western Massachusetts garden.
I invite my readers to join me in this adventure. We can compare notes using email (email@example.com), my Bangor Daily News blog (http://gardeningintunewithnature.bangordailynews.com/), or the Facebook Page for my new book, The New England Gardener’s Year (http://www.facebook.com/negardener). Those of you who have experience can keep the rest of us straight.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Johnnyseeds.com
Maine Potato Lady, www.mainepotatolady.com
The Cook’s Garden, www.cooksgarden.com
Vermont Bean Seed Company, www.vermontbean.com