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FOOD 101: Why Onions Make You Cry…And How To Stop It

Sliced Onion

Cutting an onion releases the “tear” chemicals (photo Flagstaff Fotos).


An onion is a thing of beauty—until you slice into it and the fumes assault your eyes. But that doesn’t need to be. Here are some tips to minimize the impact of the acrid gas that’s released when you slice into an onion.


Simply peeling an onion does not make your eyes water.

But once you chop, cut, crush or smash the onion, the onion’s cells break open, creating a chemical reaction. Enzymes called alliinases break down the amino acids (sulfoxides)in the onion and generate sulfenic acids.

These further react to produce a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor, or LF. LF diffuses through the air and activates sensory neurons in eye, causing that burning, stinging sensation.

It’s not dissimilar to the effects of tear gas. Tear glands come to the defense, producing tears to dilute and flush out the irritant. If you slice onions a lot, your eyes will become more tolerant (they may build up a tolerance to the LF).

The amount of LF differs among onion varieties. That’s why some onions are real “burners” and others are milder. Sweet onions, for example, grow in soils that are low in sulphur and don’t produce much alliinase.


Our personal technique: For no sting whatsoever, wear swimming goggles (or any goggles). It works like a charm.

No goggles? These will help:

  • Slice the onion vertically, through the root end. The onion base has a higher concentration of sulphur compounds than the rest of the bulb. Even better, avoid the root altogether. Use only the top 80% of the onion.
  • Slice under running water. Place your cutting board in the sink and cut the onions under running water. The water whisks the fumes away. Submerge the onions in a basin of water, if you have a basin large enough!
  • Refrigerate the onions before cutting. This reduces the enzyme reaction rate.
  • Turn on a fan. Position it to blow the gas away from your eyes.

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    TIP OF THE DAY: Mix Spaghetti With Zucchini Noodles

    Zoodles - Zucchini Noodles & Pasta
    [1] Cacio e pepe, “cut” with zucchini noodles (photo courtesy Good Eggs).

    Zucchini Noodles
    [2] Zucchini noodles, spiralized and ready to cook (photo courtesy Good Eggs).

    Cacio e Pepe

    [3] A classic dish of Cacio e Pepe. Here’s a recipe from Philo’s Kitchen.


    Two years ago, when zucchini noodles became the rage, many of us ran out to buy spiralizers—simple gadgets that turned a zucchini into ribbons of vegetable “pasta.”

    You can now buy spiralized zucchini in bags.

    A big bowl of pasta with bolognese sauce and scads of grated cheese can be lightened, both texturally and calorically, is an attractive substitute.

    We’ve previously written about Cacio e Peppe (KAH-chee-oh ay PEP-pay, cheese and pepper), an ancient pasta dish (in fact, one of the most ancient dishes in Italian cuisine).

    The classic recipe is a quick one Grated cheese—cacio in Roman dialect, referring to a sheep’s milk cheese like pecorino romano—becomes a creamy, cheesy sauce when mixed with a a few spoons of the hot water used to cook the pasta.

    The result: creamy sauce, obtained combining best quality Pecorino Romano and a few spoons of the water used to cook the spaghetti. The starch that leaches from the spaghetti into the cooking water combines with the grated cheese in just the right way.

    But Good Eggs has taken it one step further in the name of lowering the carbs: They mixed conventional wheat pasta noodles with zucchini noodles.

    Casio e Pepe, a Roman dish, was easy comfort food. The ingredients were very portable and did not spoil. Roman shepherds and travelers needed only water and a fire to create a stick-to-your-ribs meal.

    The classic recipe has no butter or cream, ingredients which are used to make creamy Alfredo sauce. There’s just pasta, salted water to cook it, cheese and ground black pepper. Some modern recipes use a bit of olive oil to bind the ingredients.

    All the ingredients are ancient foods:

  • Pasta has been found dating to about 2000 B.C.E.—a plate of rice noodles in northwest China. After trade brought the concept west, the Arabs, Estruscans, Greeks and Romans used their local grain—wheat—to make noodles similar to the pasta we eat today. The Romans kneaded flour into dough, which was cut into strips called laganum—similar to what we now call lasagna noodles.
  • Sheep’s cheese similar to pecorino romano has been made since at least since the time of the ancient Greeks (some sources date it to 3000 B.C.E.). Pecorino is the word for any sheep’s milk cheese; pecorino romano is an aged grating cheese.
  • Peppercorns, the fruits of a flowering vine, grew wild for millennia in India before being cultivated. About 2,500 years ago, pepper was traded to Greece, and then to the Roman Empire. Rare and precious, it was often used as currency. Peppercorns have been found in archaeological sites, and with the mummy of King Ramses III of Egypt (d. 1212 B.C.E.). To stop Alarico, the king of Visgoths, from sacking Rome in 408 B.C.E., he was given a ransom comprising 5,000 pounds of gold, a parcel of land and 3,000 pounds of peppercorns.
  • Salt, inexpensive and ubiquitous today, was so precious that throughout history, wars were fought over it. In addition to its value enhancing the flavor of food and drying food for lean times, salt is critical to man’s survival*. Salt comes from two main sources: evaporated sea water and the sodium chloride mineral deposits known as halite (rock salt), themselves the evaporated residue of dried-up underground lakes and seas.
    Ready to combine the ingredients into a hot dish of pasta…with some zucchini?

    Ingredients For 2 Main Course Servings

  • 8 ounces spiralized zucchini
  • Olive oil to sauté
  • 12 ounces fresh spaghetti (substitute† dried pasta, substitute any thin, flat or round noodle)
  • 6 ounces pecorino cheese, shredded (substitute any Italian grating cheese)
  • Black pepper, freshly ground (substitute red chile flakes)
  • Garnish: chopped flat leaf parsley to taste
  • Optional garnish: toasted bread crumbs (substitute croutons)

    1. BRING a large pot of salted water to a boil. While it heats, place the zucchini in a sauce pan over medium heat and sauté for about 2 minutes, until al dente. Turn the heat off and cover the zucchini to keep it warm.

    2. COOK the spaghetti according to package directions; then drain it, holding back a few tablespoonsful of pasta water. Add the pasta and half the pasta water to zucchini pan, and toss together.

    3. REMOVE from the heat and toss with the cheese and pepper to taste (Italians go heavy on the pepper). The heat of the pasta and the pasta water should help melt the cheese into a smooth, creamy sauce. Add more hot pasta water as needed to achieve the consistency you desire. If the water has become tepid, microwave it for 30 seconds.

    4. GARNISH with parsley and serve. It isn’t part of the official recipe, but we like the crunch of toasted bread crumbs or croutons as a garnish.


    *Humans can’t live without some sodium. It’s needed to transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscle fibers (including the heart muscle and blood vessels), and maintain a proper fluid balance. Here’s more about it from Harvard Medical School.

    †Long, thin spaghetti has different names in different regions of Italy; for example, capellini, fedelini, spaghetti alla chitarra and tonnarelli. In the U.S., you’re most likely to find spaghetti, spaghettini and vermicelli (angel hair, capelli d’angelo, is too thin for this rich sauce). The widths of all of these strands vary, but not in a significant way to impact the recipe.


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    RECIPE: Autumn Apple Spritz Cocktail

    Appletinis evoke spring and summer; mulled cider is for the chilly fall and winter.

    In-between, how about an Apple Cider Spritz?

    We adapted this recipe from one from Elegant Affairs Caterers. The basic recipe is very versatile, and a lesson in the ease of substituting ingredients.

  • Don’t have apple-flavored vodka? Use regular vodka and hard apple cider.
  • Don’t have apple juice or cider? Use hard cider or apple schnapps.
  • Don’t have club soda? Perrier or other sparkling water will work. So will 7-Up or Sprite, but it makes a sweeter drink.
  • Don’t have a Lady apple? Cut small round slices from the apple you do have with a cookie cutter.
  • Don’t have star anise? Use a cardamom pod or a whole clove.

    Ingredients Per Drink

  • 2 ounces apple flavored vodka
  • 2 ounces apple juice
  • 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) club soda
  • Squeeze of lime wedge
  • Garnish: 1 slice lady apple topped with 1 star anise

    1. COMBINE the vodka, apple juice, club soda and a squeeze of the lime wedge. Shake with ice until mixed and strain into a Martini glass or a coupe (the “sherbet champagne” glass).

    2. TOP a slice of apple with the star anise and float atop the drink.

    The Lady is an old French variety, which remains popular in Europe and the U.S. It is known in Europe as the Api, after the forest of Api in Bretagne, in western France, where it is thought to have originated.

    It is a petite apple—an adult can finish it in three large bites—with a pleasing aroma and flavor. In photo #2, you can see how many fit into a pint container.

    Throughout its history, the Lady apple has been used as much for decoration as for eating apple. Baskets of Lady apples were used to mask unpleasant odors.


    Apple Spritzer
    [1] An Apple Sprizer bridges the gap between warm-weather Appleton’s and cold weather Mulled Cider (photo courtesy Elegant Affairs caterers).

    Lady Apples
    [2] Lady apples, called Api (their original name) in Europe (photo courtesy Simply Beautiful World | Tumblr).


    Records suggest that Api appeared as a seedling some time before the early 17th century. It soon became popular in France, England and the U.S.

    Records also show that the U.S. exported large quantities to England in Victorian times under the name Lady Apple [source].

    In modern times, Lady apples are popular in the fourth quarter, as in centerpieces and other holiday decor, along with clementines, evergreen branches and pine cones.

    The Lady apple/Api is not directly related to either Pink Lady or Lady Alice apples.


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    FOOD 101: The World’s Oldest Foods

    Figs On Tree
    [1] Figs growing on the tree (photo courtesy Indoor Citrus Trees).
    Brown Turkey Figs

    [2] Brown turkey figs (photo courtesy Melissa’s).


    For back-to-school season, we went back to “food school” to re-examine the domestication of crops.

    In 2006, the discovery of figs in an 11,400-year-old house near the ancient city of Jericho established figs as the world’s oldest cultivated crop—toppling the previous contenders, wheat and barley.

    Who knows what evidence will be found going forward, but for now, figs wear the crown.

    The figs were from a type of fig tree that was not pollinated by insects. Such a parthenocarpic tree won’t reproduce unless. Human intervention is required, to grow more trees from a cuttings.

    Voilà: earliest known instance of agriculture, the practice of farming, which in includes cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops*.

    A parthenocarpic tree doesn’t produce seeds to reproduce, but a benefit is that its fruit is prevented from falling off the tree. This allows it to become soft and sweet instead of falling to the ground, often before it reaches its sweet peak.

    That sweeter fruit may be why man—or rather, woman—continually planted shoots from the trees.

    How did prehistoric woman figure that out?

    “It’s generally women who do the gathering in hunting-and-gathering societies,” says a Harvard anthropologist, Ofer Bar-Yosef. “And years of experience would tell them exactly how the plants behaved…” [source].

    But, he notes, observation and experimentation are a very slow process, perhaps requiring experimentation by generations of women.

    Previously, domestication of figs was believed to have occurred after domestication of the eight “founder crops”:

  • Cereals: barley, einkorn and emmer wheat (farro)
  • Pulses: bitter vetch (heath pea, a species of pea), chickpeas, lentils, peas
  • Textile: flax (linseed, which also produces edible oil)
    On the other side of the world, millet was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in China, followed by rice [source].

    The 2005 discovery now places figs on the top of the podium of the world’s oldest domesticated crops—by roughly 1,000 years, and 5,000 years earlier than previously thought.

    Previously, agriculture was thought to begin after 9500 B.C.E. in the Fertile Crescent, the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that is now include Mesopotamia, and the Levant†.

    It’s a Near East-centric view that doesn’t include what might have been happening in the rest of the world. Some highlights [source]:

  • Bottle gourd, Asia and Central America, 8000 B.C.E.
  • Beans, South America, 8000 B.C.E.
  • Potatoes, South America, 8000 B.C.E.
  • Rice, Asia, 8000 B.C.E.
  • Squash, Central America, 8000 B.C.E.
  • Maize (corn), Central America, 8000 B.C.E.
    Here’s the full chart of plant domestication.

    Here’s more about the dawn of agriculture.


    *Agriculture also includes the rearing of animals to provide food, wool and other products.

    †The Levant is the name given to the western Fertile Crescent, a large area in southwest Asia. Its perimeters are south of the Taurus Mountains, with the Mediterranean Sea as the western boundary, and the north Arabian Desert and Mesopotamia in the east. The historical area comprises modern-day Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

    “Levant” is an English term that first appeared in 1497. It originally referred to the “Mediterranean lands east of Italy.” Among other popular foods, Levantine cuisine gave birth to baklava, balafel, kebabs, mezze (including tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush), pita and za’atar, among other dishes that are enjoyed in the U.S. and around the world.


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    TIP OF THE DAY: Ice Cream Donuts

    A fun project for a long weekend: ice cream donuts.

    There are two ways to look at them. One requires a donut pan and some fabrication. The other requires nothing but donuts and ice cream.



  • Donuts of choice (without frosting or filling)
  • Garnishes of choice: chopped nuts, cookie crumbs, mini-chips, sprinkles, etc.
  • Optional: chocolate chips or chopped chocolate for a chocolate dip

    1. SOFTEN the ice cream by leaving the container on the counter for 10 minutes or more.

    2. HALVE the donuts. Pile ice cream on the lower half and smooth the edges with a spatula. Add the top donut half.

    3a. ROLL the ice cream in a dish of garnishes. Wrap in plastic and return to the freezer to harden – or –

    3b. MELT the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl. Dip part of the donut in the chocolate, then in garnishes as desired.
    RECIPE #2: ICE CREAM DONUTS (Photo #3)

    These donuts have no cakey component; they’re solid ice-cream shaped like donuts. You can add a crumb bottom for some donut effect.


  • Ice cream of choice
  • Frosting
  • Garnishes of choice: chopped nuts, cookie crumbs, mini-chips, sprinkles, etc.
  • Optional: cookie crumb or cake bottom (we used purchased coffee cake crumbs, which we broke into smaller pieces)

    1. COAT the wells of the pan (photo #2) per manufacturer’s instructions.

    2. SOFTEN the ice cream by leaving the container on the counter for 10 minutes or more.

    3. SPOON the ice cream into the donut wells. Level with a spatula. Add the optional cake or cookie crumbs and lightly tamp down. Place the pan in the freezer.

    4. ASSEMBLE: Invert the pan to remove the donuts. Quickly frost, garnish and serve. Alternatively, just frost and serve the garnishes separately, in DIY fashion.

    An old word for ball was nut; a doughnut is literally a nut (ball) of dough.


    Donut Ice Cream Sandwich
    [1] The easy way: slice a donut, add the ice cream. Paper ‘N Stitch Blog uses glazed donuts with colorful ice creams, like black cherry chip and mint chocolate chip.

    Donut Pan - Wilton
    [2] With a donut pan, you can soften ice cream and fill the circles. Refreeze, then frost and decorate (photo by Hannah Kaminsky, Bittersweet Blog.

    Ice Cream Donuts

    [3] If you invest in a donut pan, you can use it for other things. Check out 101 Donut Pan Ideas.

    The term “doughnut” was first used in print in 1809 by American author Washington Irving in his satirical “Knickerbocker’s History Of New York.” Irving wrote of:

    “…balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks*.”

    These balls, or nuts of fried dough, are what we now call (in a smaller size) doughnut holes.

    Because the center of the cake did not cook as quickly as the outside, the softer centers were sometimes stuffed with fruit, nuts, or other fillings that did not require cooking (think of the chopped onions in the center of a bialy).

    What about the hole?

    Per Smithsonian, a New England ship captain’s mother made a notably delicious, deep-fried doughut that used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. She filled the center with hazelnuts or walnuts.

    As the story goes, in 1847, 16-year-old sailor Hanson Crockett Gregory created the hole in the center of the doughnut. He used the top of a round tin pepper container to punch the holes, so the dough would cook evenly.

    He recounted the story in an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, 50 years later.

    He effectively eliminated the need to fill the less-cooked center, and provided an inner cut-out that enabled the dough to be evenly cooked.

    Who changed the spelling to donut?

    The first known printed record of the shortened word “donut” appears (likely an inadvertent misspelling) in “Peck’s Bad Boy And His Pa,” a story by George W. Peck published in 1900.

    The spelling did not immediately catch on. That impetus goes to Dunkin’ Donuts, founded in 1950.

    Donut is a easier to write, but we prefer the old-fashioned elegance of doughnut. Take your choice.

    Doughnuts didn’t become a mainstream American food until after World War I. American doughboys at the front were served doughnuts by Salvation Army volunteers. When the doughboys returned, they brought their taste for doughnuts with them [source].

    The name doughboy wasn’t related to the doughnuts, by the way. It dates to the Civil War, when the cavalry unchivalrously derided foot soldiers as doughboys. Two theories are offered:

  • Their globular brass buttons resembled flour dumplings.
  • They used flour to polish their white belts.
  • ________________

    *Olykoek is Dutch for oil cake, i.e., batter fried in oil. While dough was fried the world over, we can thank the Dutch for the sweet balls fried in hog fat that became modern doughnuts.


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