04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Crying Time: Ode to Onions

Mention onions, and the immediate response you're most likely to get relates to their lachrymal properties - "they make me cry!" An intriguing theory as to why this is so can be found in ancient Turkish folklore: the story is told that "when Satan was cast down from Heaven, the spot where his right foot first touched the earth sprouted onions, to bring tears to Mankind." Or there is the more prosaic but undoubtedly more accurate observation provided by modern science, which explains that the weepy effect is produced by allyl propyl disulfide. This sulfur-containing compound is responsible not only for the onion's pungent odor, but also for many of its health-promoting aspects.

Down Through the Centuries

Onions have been cultivated for over 5,000 years, in many lands and cultures. For much of their history they were considered a food suitable primarily for the poor, due to their overwhelming pungency and easy ubiquity. Ancient Egyptians used them as currency to pay the weary workers at the pyramids; "sandwiches" of bread and raw onions were a staple of the lower classes in Europe for centuries. But toward the end of the Middle Ages, the onion began to be recognized for the versatile and delightful vegetable it truly is. And once Columbus carried it to the New World, its culinary dominance was assured.

And its uses were not by any means confined to the kitchen. "In Sixth Century India, onions were employed as a diuretic; in Colonial America, raw onions were thought to cure the measles; and in Chinese medicine, to this day they are said to calm the liver, moisten the intestines, and benefit the lungs."

Now About Those Benefits

The health benefits in onions derive primarily from that afore-mentioned sulfuric compound, as well as chromium, Vitamin B6, and a flavonoid called quercitin. "The allyl propyl disulfide has been shown to lower blood sugar levels; and in combination with chromium it can lower insulin levels, and decrease total cholesterol and triglyceride levels while increasing 'good' HDL-cholesterol levels." And when you stir the B6 into the mix, you are rewarded with heightened protection against atherosclerosis, diabetic heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Which brings us to the flavonoid quercitin. This antioxidant has been proven to be a potent fighter against intestinal and colorectal cancers, as well as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and numerous other common cancers. Add to this significant anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, and quercitin is indeed proven to be a formidable weapon in the healthy-living arsenal.

Getting the Good Stuff

Onions are divided into two basic categories - spring/summer and storage. The former are the "sweet" onions - Vidalia, Maui and Walla-Walla being among the better known - as well as spring onions (also known as green onions or scallions); they are more fragile, and cannot be stored for any length of time. They are also much milder-tasting. The storage onions are those with a dry outer husk and a more pungent flavor and aroma, and these can be stored for longer periods of time.

In all instances, choose onions that are firm and dry, with no sprouting at the top and no soft or moldy spots. Spring onions should be fresh, green, and tender - avoid any that are wilted and yellowed, and store them in a plastic bag in the fridge. Store all other onions in a cool place with plenty of ventilation; use sweet onions within a week, storage onions within a month.

By the way -- the more powerful the odor, the more powerful the health benefits - so go ahead and cry, it'll be good for you in the long run!

Classic Onion Soup, Healthy Style

Here's a savory and satisfying rendition of the French bistro classic, without all the fat!

4 large organic brown onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon organic unsalted butter
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
6 cups organic low-sodium beef broth
1 cup water
8 diagonal slices organic sourdough baguette
1 large clove garlic, halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
A little chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 350.

Make soup: In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add onions, thyme & bay leaf, and cook for 40 minutes, stirring often, until golden brown. Add minced garlic, cook and stir for 5 minutes more. Add broth and water, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Make croutons: Place baguette slices on baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, cook in preheated oven for 10 minutes, turning once. Remove from oven, rub top of croutons with garlic slices, sprinkle with parmesan, and return to oven for 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Assemble: Place one crouton in each of 8 deep soup bowls. Ladle soup over the croutons and sprinkle with parsley. Et Voila!

Serves 8.

Good Luck Sweet Onion & Black-Eyed Pea Salad

In the South, if you want to have good luck all through the year, you must enjoy this traditional dish at the start of the New Year...I personally enjoy it all year round!

4 cans organic black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 medium sweet onion, peeled, quartered & thinly sliced
(Vidalia or Maui are best)
2 large cloves garlic, each sliced vertically into four pieces
1/3 cup safflower oil
1/4 cup white vinegar
Fresh ground pepper & salt to taste

Combine all ingredients, stir well. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 6 hours. [It's best after 2 days or so.]

Serve as a side dish with grilled chicken, or use it on top of garden greens or mix it with low-fat cottage cheese for a quick lunch. Or just eat it right out of the container!

[Note: A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the February issue of Better Nutrition Magazine.]