The onion reigns supreme in Black Dirt Country

W. Rogowski Farm in Pine Island at 5:30 in the morning.

It is hard to imagine civilization
without the onion.

– Julia Child

To our southwest is a motherlode of rich black loamy soil that produces perfect onions. Orange County has been called the onion capital of the nation, where they grow on about 70 farms. This is not news, as for more than 100 years this fertile dirt has produced crops of uncommon flavor and quality.

It all started longer ago than that, however, when, 12,000 years ago, receding glaciers carved out boggy hollows in the earth that filled with water. In the beginning of the last century, immigrants from Poland, Holland and Germany drained it, and found under it a kind of rich compost 12 to 30 feet deep, made of decayed plants and high in sulfur and nitrogen, with an organic matter component of 30 to 90 percent (most soil has typically less than ten percent). This “black dirt” produces onions that are sweet and rich in flavor.

Onions have been cultivated for 5,000 years. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were buried with onions, because their layers – a circle in a circle in a circle – symbolized eternal life. The foundation of most savory dishes, onions bring sweetness and depth to the party. Salads like potato or tomato or tuna and cannellini or potato and green beans wouldn’t be the same without them. Imagine orange Indian onion relish, carbonnades flamandes, coq au vin, pissaladière, French onion soup gratinée, the classic fried onion rings without onions: unthinkable.

Onions are pesky to peel and cut, though, as all cooks know. Fortunately, my contact lenses protect me from the copious tears that most cutters of onions experience. But some years ago I researched ways to avoid the pain and suffering, and found these suggestions: Hold a match between your teeth; wet your forearms with water; wear goggles; put your onion in the fridge or freezer for a while first; put a piece of bread on the end of your knife; chop the onions under running water or next to a fan or a lit candle; or cut the root end last (supposedly where the highest concentration of volatile oils lurks). I’ve heard that if you stick out your tongue or chew gum, the evil vapors will make a beeline for your mouth instead of your eyes. Also, a well-sharpened knife helps cut them up quickly and efficiently, shortening torture time.

We have to wait for our local onions if we want sweet onions or those classic yellow storage onions. They’re not in season. The fresh ones haven’t yet matured, and the storage onions are long gone at this point – especially this year, after a tough harvest season due to weather conditions that made supplies smaller. However, if you crave that oniony bite, there are plenty of scallions, cipolline and baby leeks in season now, says Cheryl Rogowski, who grows onions along with many other Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) crops in the rich soil at her W. Rogowski Farm in Pine Island in the township of Warwick. Other onions were planted in “sets” in the early spring. “My Dad would say that if the greens touched across the rows by Memorial Day Monday, that there would be a good harvest that year,” says Rogowski, whose father started the farm in the 1950s. (They did this year, she added.)

The produce is available to the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, at the farm store and at many restaurants and farmers’ markets, local and in three New York City boroughs. Rogowski offers very popular “Field to Fork Gourmet Supper Club” dinners on the farm, where alliums are often featured, along with the live music and the company of the farmer herself. Upcoming dates include July 13 (seasonal menu) and August 3 (vegetarian menu). Among the offerings at a recent dinner were a grass-fed beef tenderloin with garlic scape confit and fresh spaghetti with nettle pesto. For reservations call (845) 544-5379 or e-mail

Breakfasts are served on the farm every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. year-round, and a special Fathers’ Day breakfast is scheduled for Sunday, June 17.

Other oniony area events include the Black Dirt Farmers’ Market, opening for the season June 16 in the Jolly Onion parking lot in Pine Island; and the Onion Festival, scheduled for September 2. This fest has run since 1939 on and off, and is also a Polish cultural festival, although not as big as it once was. For information on the fest, call (800) 724-0727.




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