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Gardening: Grow your own ingredients for the Hairy Bikers' cheesy, oniony panhaggerty

The humble onion is one of the most important and versatile vegetables of all, so much so that it’s still worth shedding a few tears over, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Gardener

I’VE HEARD SOME of my fellow growers argue that you shouldn’t bother growing onions on the grounds that they are so cheap and ubiquitous.

Why, they sniff, would you allocate precious growing space to such a mundane vegetable when you could be growing something cool and exotic like asparagus or salsify or globe artichokes? Onions… pfff….sure, they are practically a condiment, darling.

OK, so yes onions are cheap and plentiful. And yes, it’s true that if all you are using them for is the starting point to your spag bol, then it probably won’t matter a whole lot whether they’re homegrown or from a Dutch mega-farm.

But try the delicious, cheesy, oniony panhaggerty recipe below and you will see that onions deserve to be centre stage. Make an onion tart or a proper French onion soup and then try telling me that onions are not venerable in their own right.

A superfood

shutterstock_359639939 Source: Shutterstock/Cergeus

Because they are so darn common, we tend to forget just how good onions are for our health. They don’t hoover up the superfood column inches like kale, beetroot or garlic. They won’t be top of any nutribullet favourite list. But did you know that onions protect us from cancer and heart disease more than high-profile foods like pomegranate, red wine, and green tea?

So, here’s another thing. I’m convinced that the flavour of home-grown onions is better, and though I can’t prove it, I also think they make you cry more than the supermarket ones.

I’ve often wondered, why don’t shop-bought onions make me cry anymore? Am I just getting used to chopping them? Are my tear ducts drying out as I get older? Or is there something fundamentally different about the modern, commercial onion?

From a growing perspective, onions give a more-than-decent return in terms of “value for space”. I can get three rows per 1m wide bed and because onions are spaced just 10cm apart in the row, I get 30 onions per metre of bed or 150 onions in a 5-metre bed.

They are also a relatively successful “storage” crop. If I am lucky, onions will be perfectly contented hanging in a braid in the kitchen until around February of the following year (at which time they start to get soft and sprout).

So harvesting from September, we will have 25 onions a month until February of next year. If it’s not exactly a high value crop in the way that others might be, that’s still a return not to be sneezed at.

The Basics – Growing Onions

Generally most GIYers grow from “sets” (basically baby onions) but you can also grow from seed. Sets will mature quickly and are pretty much fool-proof. They are however more expensive than seed.

Dig in some well rotted manure or compost the previous winter and apply an organic fertiliser (like chicken manure pellets) before sowing. Don’t plant onions in the same place year after year. Include in crop rotation.

Sets

Sow 4 inches apart in rows 8 inches apart in March or April. Hold off if the weather is very cold. Onion sets won’t do well in cold, damp soil. Push the set into the soil so that the tip is just about visible above the surface. Firm in well.

Frost can “heave” the sets from the soil at night. If this happens push them back in the next day.

Seed

Sow in module trays from February and transplant when seedlings are well established.

Onions hate weed competition so keep your onion bed weed free. Hoe carefully around the bulbs every week or so and hand weed if necessary. Water if weather is dry or mulch (but remove mulch when bulbs start to form). Never overwater. An occasional liquid feed will help.

Onions are ready to harvest when foliage turns yellow and topples over (approx 20 weeks after sowing). Gently loosen the soil around the onions at this point (or turn the onion very carefully and very slightly in the soil) and leave for another two weeks.

Loosening the soil like this allows the onion to expand in the soil. Then lift carefully.

Onions can be eaten fresh from the soil. For storage, leave to dry on a rack in the sun (or indoors in a greenhouse or polytunnel if the weather is wet) for about 10 days. Then plait them in ropes or hang in nets.

Recipe of the Week – Panhaggerty

shutterstock_482943949 Source: Shutterstock/Fanfo

Here’s the Hairy Bikers’ version of the classic panhaggerty – the ultimate comfort food in the Kelly household.

Ingredients 

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 250g/9oz streaky bacon
  • 6 potatoes, thinly sliced into rounds
  • 2 onions, peeled, sliced
  • 5 carrots, peeled, sliced
  • 500ml/17½fl oz chicken stock
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 150g/5oz cheddar cheese, grated
  • crusty bread, to serve

Directions

Heat the vegetable oil in a deep ovenproof pan. Fry the bacon for 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown and slightly crisp. Remove from the pan and set aside to drain on kitchen paper.

In the same pan used to cook the bacon, arrange a layer of the sliced potatoes in the bottom of the pan. Cover the potatoes with a layer of sliced onions, then a layer of sliced carrots.

Layer over some of the crisp bacon, then season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Repeat the process with the remaining potatoes, onions, carrots and bacon, finishing with a layer of potatoes on top. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Pour in the chicken stock so that all of the ingredients are covered, then bring to the boil. Cover the pan with a lid and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 15-25 minutes, or until the potatoes and carrots are tender.

Preheat the grill to high. Uncover the pan and sprinkle over the grated cheese. Grill for 5-6 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and golden-brown.

To serve, spoon the panhaggerty into bowls and serve with some crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ. 

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.

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About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Gardener

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