Tonight while making ziti and meatballs for dinner I added raw garlic and onions to the meatball mixture, and as a preliminary step for tomato sauce I sautéed onions and garlic. Yesterday for dinner I had an asparagus omelette with onions and garlic, and the day before that, an apple and cheddar cheese sandwich with raw onion. In retrospect it dawned on me that I, like many people, use garlic and onions a lot, either together or separately. They're the type of ingredients that you either love or hate. Thankfully, I fall into the former category.

I'm no rare exception, of course. Some people can be downright fanatical about their pungent bulbs. I once worked with a guy who loved raw onion so much that he'd begin salivating at the mere site or smell of them. On a dare I actually saw him take a bite out of a raw onion like an apple. Some of his friends called him "onion boy".

Though it's difficult to imagine anyone-other than onion boy-actually eating an entire onion, a medium-sized one is said to have has as much vitamin C as an orange and twice as much as an apple. In fact, at one time, because they were more readily available and easier to store than citrus fruits, onions were brought on long voyages to prevent scurvy-the infamous Captain Cook mandated that there be twenty pounds of onions for each crew member aboard his ships (as if the people on board weren't smelly enough).

Garlic obsession is even more common, I think; it can actually borderline on an addiction, and in the following cases even a form of prejudice. In Elizabeth David's classic, A Book of Mediterranean Food, Marcel Boulstine writes in the introduction, "It is not really and exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin geographically, where garlic is used in cooking."

The late Waverly Root, American expatriate and former foreign correspondent for the New York Post, but whom became more well known for his writing on food, writes in his encyclopedic tome, Food, "Garlic has been the vehicle in the United States of self-reversed snobbery. Before I left America to live in Europe in 1927, you were looked down upon if you ate it, a food only fit for ditch diggers; when I returned in 1940 you were looked down upon if you didn't eat it."

One can only wonder what these two culinary bon vivants would think of the prevalence of garlic in cooking today-with the popularity of ethnic foods garlic seems to be in almost every preparation, and that, in this cook's opinion, is not such a bad thing at all.

Onions and garlic are closely related; they're cousins, of sorts. Along with chives, leeks and other pungent shoots and bulbs (oddly including asparagus), garlic and onions are members of the allium-or lily-family. And they've been used as a folk medicine for eons. In fact, onions and garlic have been employed medicinally for more than 3000 years.

The ancient Egyptians used onions and garlic as a preventative medication and for numerous of ailments-slaves were fed copious amounts to remain healthy while constructing the pyramids. The esteemed Greek physician, Hippocrates, prescribed them as a cold cure and also applied them to wounds to alleviate infection.  During the American Civil War Ulysses S. Grant refused to march his troops forward without an ample supply of onions, and during world war one garlic was used as an external antiseptic to disinfect wounds and prevent gangrene-the Soviets relied on it to such an extent, in fact, that it became known as "Russian penicillin."

So what about today? What are authorities saying about the health benefits of garlic and onions? Its cooking uses are easily determined, but what about their curative and disease prevention properties? From what I've found it seems the experts are dancing around the subject, as if no one wants to be the first to come out and say it. They're stating that, yes, like most plant based foods garlic and onions are good for you, but there hasn't been enough solid evidence to state that they do, in fact, cure or prevent disease. But they are not denying it either&

The website of the United States Department of Agriculture states that "Despite a flurry of research on garlic in the 1990's, much remains to be learned." But then they go on to list a series of health benefits they've "ascribed" to garlic: antibiotic/anti-fungal effects, antiseptic properties, antioxidant effects (which includes protecting some cells from cancer), cholesterol reduction, and anti-hypertensive effects (which reduces blood pressure).

The American Heart Association is even more nebulous when coming out and directly stating the effects of garlic. In one report, published on their web site concerning the effects of cancer and heart health in relation to naturally occurring plant sulfur compounds that are found in all of the allium family, especially garlic, they state: "Effects on clinical outcomes are not established, and effects on glucose and blood pressure are none to minimal." But then they too add that high dietary intake of garlic may be associated with decreased risks of multiple cancers.

The American Dietetic Association comes more to the point. According to their web site, eating garlic or onions regularly may help lower cholesterol, control blood pressure, prevent blood clotting, act as antioxidants to reduce cancer risk, and perhaps promote immunity.

So all the stink is actually worth it. 3000 years of folk medicine can't be entirely based on psychological placebo.

My favorite bit of onion information probably falls under the "lore" category. And guys in particular, like myself, who may be approaching midlife crises, will find this of special interest. A 1596 book, entitled The Great Herbal, claimed that regular applications of onion juice to the bald scalp could grow hair. So for those who know me, the next time we speak and you think that I've just eaten onions for dinner, the smell may actually be coming from my hair&or what's left of it.

Ziti with Tomato Sauce and Meatballs
Yield 2-4 servings
For the sauce:
       2 tablespoons olive oil
       1 small onion, peeled and diced
       2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
       2 teaspoons sugar
       1 teaspoon basil
   1/2 teaspoon salt
   1/4 teaspoon pepper
   1/4 cup red wine
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
1-1/2 cups tomato purée

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a small sauce pot. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, but not browned. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute. Stir in the sugar, basil, salt, and pepper; sauté another minute. Add the red wine, and allow it to simmer for 30 seconds. Stir in the broth and tomato purée. Bring the sauce to a slow simmer.

For the meatballs:
    8 ounces ground beef
1/2 small onion, peeled and diced
    2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
    2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
    1 large egg
    1 slice wheat bread, crust removed and torn into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon pepper
       olive oil for sautéing

Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl, and knead them for a minute or two, or until they are a homogenous mass. Roll the meat into 16 mini meatballs. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Place the meatballs in the hot oil and brown them on all sides. Remove the meatballs from the skillet and transfer them to the sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 45 minutes. If the sauce becomes too thick add water or broth until desired consistency.

To complete the dish: 
1/2 pound ziti
       grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
       crushed hot pepper

Cook the ziti in plenty of boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta thoroughly, then transfer it to a large bowl. Pour the sauce and meatballs over the pasta; toss until combined. Serve while hot with grated cheese and crushed red pepper.

Four-Onion Focaccia
    1 package active dry yeast
    1 teaspoon sugar
    1 cup lukewarm water
    3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
    6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
    1 large yellow onion, sliced thin
    1 large red onion, sliced thin
    1 large shallot, sliced thin
    4 scallions, sliced thin
    1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Combine the yeast, sugar and water in the bowl of an electric mixer and allow it to rest for 15 minutes, or until the mixture is foamy.  Add the flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt and 3 tablespoons of the oil. With the dough hook attachment knead the dough for 8 minutes, or alternately, knead the dough for 10 minutes by hand on a floured surface. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl; turn the dough over to coat it with the oil. Cover the dough with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let it rise for 1-1/2 hours, or until it is doubled in bulk. Roll the dough out to fit a 10 x 15 inch pan, or 14 inch round pizza pan; cover the dough loosely and let it rise for 1 hour, or until it is almost double in bulk. Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl combine the remaining 3 tablespoons oil with the yellow onion, red onion, shallot, scallions, chopped rosemary, black pepper and remaining teaspoon of salt. Sprinkle the onion mixture evenly across the dough and top with the Parmesan cheese. Bake the focaccia in the preheated oven for 35 to 45 minutes, or until it is golden brown. Let the focaccia cool for a few minutes before slicing; serve it warm or at room temperature.

Broccoli and Bean Curd with Ginger, Garlic, and Hot Peppers
Yield: 4 servings
       4 tablespoons soy sauce
       1 tablespoon cider vinegar
       1 tablespoon sugar
       2 tablespoons cornstarch
       4 heads broccoli, stems removed, cut into florets
     12 ounces firm tofu, sliced into 1-inch pieces
       1 cup vegetable oil (for pan-frying)
       1 small onion, peeled and julienned
       1 red bell pepper, cored and julienned
       2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
       1 tablespoon minced ginger
       1 teaspoon crushed hot pepper
1-1/2 cups chicken broth

In a small bowl combine the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and cornstarch. Mix it with a fork to dissolve the entire cornstarch, and set aside. Par-cook the broccoli in a pot of rapidly boiling water, then drain it and cool it rapidly under cold running water. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Very carefully add the tofu to the oil (this should be done with great care because the tofu will sputter when it comes in contact with the oil). Cook the tofu, turning it once, until it attains a light golden color. Carefully remove the tofu from the fat with a slotted spoon, and transfer it to absorbent paper. Allow the oil to cool a little, and then pour most of it into a separate pan (or other safe container), leaving just enough oil in the pan to form a thin film. Heat the same pan over medium-high heat and add the onion and bell pepper. Sauté the vegetables until they begin to caramelize. Add the garlic, ginger, and hot peppers. Sauté for another minute or two. Stir in the chicken broth; bring it to a boil, than stir in the soy-cornstarch mixture, making sure to add any cornstarch or sugar that may have settled to the bottom of the bowl. Stir the liquid, and bring it to a simmer (the liquid will thicken when it simmers). Add the broccoli and bean curd to the pan. Stir and toss it to evenly coat it with sauce. Continue to heat the pan just until the broccoli is heated throughout, but not overcooked. Serve with steamed rice.

Tortilla Española
(Spanish Potato Omelet)
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup olive oil
    2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
    1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin
    2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a medium non-stick skillet, heat the olive oil to approximately 300-325 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the potato and onions to the hot oil alternately, in layers. (The oil should be hot enough that the potatoes will begin to bubble immediately, but not so hot as they will brown; the potatoes are being somewhat poached in the oil, rather than fried.) Cook the potatoes and onion, over medium heat for approximately 5 minute, just until the potatoes are beginning to soften and the onion is translucent. Drain the potatoes and onion through a colander, reserve the oil  and allow the vegetables  to cool somewhat. Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper and add the cooked potatoes and onion to the egg. Gently fold and mix the potato and onion with the egg until everything is thoroughly coated. Heat 1 tablespoon of the reserved oil, over medium-high heat, in the same non-stick skillet. (The remaining reserved oil can be kept refrigerated for future use; the onions and potato impart a delicious flavor into the oil.) Add the omelet mixture to the skillet and gently press down on the potatoes to form a cake. When the tortilla begins to become firm, it should be flipped; this can be in a variety of ways. If you feel comfortable, flipping it free-hand is most desirable. Otherwise, you can slide it onto a clean plate and invert the plate onto the hot skillet, or you may simply attempt this feat with an ordinary spatula. Turn the tortilla a few times (it gets easier) to complete the cooking process. When the tortilla is cooked, remove it to a clean plate. This omelet can be eaten hot, but the textures and flavors improve if left to stand for a few minutes and cool to room temperature.