THE FIRST ALLIUMS OF THE SEASON
Two weeks ago, I pulled away the soil around a few of the shallot clusters. Unlike onions and garlic--the other two primary alliums we grow--shallots produce individual bulbs joined at a common base. As I brushed soil away from a few of the clusters, I could see that the bulbs were well developed and had spread away from one another. The papers, or outside skins, of each clove were also beginning to change from white to pale yellow: another indication that they were ready for the next step of their life cycle.
Normally my guideline for harvesting would have been when the tops of the shallot plants began to fall over, but this year I had to look for other signs. This spring they got too dry at one point, and some of the tops went limp. They have continued to grow since then, but judging their maturity by the tops was no longer an option.
After they reach maturity, the plants go through a "drying down" phase. This is similar to the time onions spend curing, or to the time between garlic maturity and harvest. It allows the plant to draw nutrients down into the bulbs from its leaves, and helps the exteriors of the bulbs to dry and toughen. I let the shallots dry down for a couple of weeks, then they were ready to harvest.
Yesterday I watered the area where they are planted (in our growing dome greenhouse from Growing Spaces). Although they need to be dry to cure well, watering the soil immediately prior to harvest makes it easier to pull them without tearing off the tops. In a wet, cool climate, there might be some risk of them not drying properly, but in our arid environment we can be certain that they will be crispy dry in a matter of days. I gave the bulbs a quick rinse while they were laid out on the stone wall of our raised beds so that any loose soil could return to the bed instead of being discarded outside.
The shallots will cure and air dry on shady outdoor racks for several days before being cleaned. These heads need very little cleaning--I will just brush away any loose or dirty papers. The tops, which shrink considerably during the curing phase, will be moistened and braided together.
While they are an excellent addition to many dishes, they especially shine when sautéed and stirred into homemade cream cheese for a quick spread or mixed into the curds of homestead cheddar before pressing to create rich, flavorful shallot cheddar cheese. We hang our finished harvest from racks in the sunroom, where they will stay firm and pungent through the next year and beyond.
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