For years, I grilled onions alongside burgers, hot dogs, sausages, asparagus, zucchini, and the other stalwarts of the American grill. Thick slices of onion, a dozen rings nestled within each other like a teary matryoshka, placed carefully on the grill so as to lay, with totally misguided optimism, over several bars of the grill-top grate. Of those dozen rings, perhaps one would survive, the others doomed to fall through the gaps in the grate and, infuriatingly, sit there beneath the propane burners, out of reach and covered in soot, or to land right on the charcoals, where they would slowly burn. The onion does not want to be grilled. It is not built for it. But some of its relatives are.
Some people skewer small onions, cipollini or pearl onions, and grill them. These onions are thick and dense, and without very mindful control of your heat, the outside will almost surely burn while the inside remains raw. Raw onions are gross. More recently, some people grill ramps, the small, wild, leafy onions that are among the first spring vegetables to be harvested. But ramps cost about a billion dollars an ounce. They are more expensive than cardamom and pepper during the peak days of the spice trade. They are more expensive than tulips in the Netherlands in the sixteen thirties. They are more expensive than an instant-messaging startup with five hundred million users in Poland. They are also kind of tricky to grill; any plant that has two distinct parts — in the ramp’s case, a firm, dense, white/pink stalk and a delicate green leaf — is hard to cook intact, because they have different cooking needs. Grilling ramps without ending up with either raw stalk or soggy burnt leaf is very difficult.
A better option is the humble scallion.
Of all the members of the onion family, only scallions should be eaten raw. They are also the same shape all the way through, from root to leaf — a thin cylinder. Everyone who’s grilled a stalk of asparagus knows the ease of grilling a thin cylinder: It rolls easily to expose different sides to the heat; it is unlikely to stick; and it cooks quickly and evenly. And because scallion greens are just a touch hardier than ramp greens, they aren’t likely to burn before the whites are done. Also, scallions cost, like, a dollar for two big bunches.
Scallions are easily my favorite vegetable to grill. Aside from being easy and cheap, they taste outrageously good, their sugars caramelizing quickly and matching perfectly with the charred flavor of the grill. They can be twirled and placed on top of burgers or nestled into a hot dog bun, or placed on a plate with unnecessary ceremony and dressed as their own dish, like asparagus. People are often surprised when you bring scallions to a BYO-grillables party, but they’ll understand after they try a bite. And they’re versatile; if you want to play around with different flavors, there’s basically nothing you can’t add to a grilled scallion, because nearly every culture on Earth grills, and nearly every culture on Earth uses some kind of onion.
In Mexico, the spring onion — which is not a scallion, but is actually the very young version of a typical yellow onion, that is, very briefly, edible — is a required accompaniment to grilled meats. In Spain, calcots, which are somewhere in between a scallion and a leek, are grilled and eaten with romesco sauce after harvest in the fall. And in Japan, yakitori (grilled things) often includes grilled negi, which is — wait for it — basically a scallion.
This advice works for all kinds of grills — propane, charcoal, broiler — and even some things that aren’t really grills, like a grill pan or even a super hot cast iron pan. Here are some suggestions!
Mexican-Style Grilled Scallions
Shopping list: Scallions, olive oil, cilantro, cotija or feta cheese, limes
Super simple. Slice off the roots of each scallion, losing as little of the white part as possible. Brush or rub with a little olive oil; go very sparingly on this. In fact, if you want, you can use none at all. Place on grill over medium heat and roll occasionally; you want a little blackening. When done, season with salt, sprinkle cheese and chopped cilantro over the top. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing. Alternately, use lemon and chopped parsley or oregano for a more Mediterranean flavor.
Spanish-Style Grilled Scallions
Shopping list: Scallions, sweet peppers (red bells or those baby sweet red peppers are good), garlic, tomatoes (canned is fine), almonds, parsley, red wine vinegar, sliced bread, olive oil
There are two closely related sauces for calcots, the larger leek-like onions that are eaten in Spain: romesco and salvitxada. Both are basically red pepper and nut sauces, but salvitxada has toasted bread in it, and also I’m not a hundred percent sure how to pronounce it. This recipe is for salvitxada.
Toast a slice of regular bread and leave it aside to cool and dry and get sort of unpleasant. Heat your oven to 400 degrees. De-stem and de-seed two red bell peppers, or an equivalent amount of other, better sweet peppers. Chop some garlic. Toss the garlic and peppers in olive oil and put in the oven until soft, maybe half an hour.
In a food processor, add a small handful of almonds, peppers, garlic; about half a bunch of parsley; and and maybe two or three drained canned plum tomatoes. Whirl the food processor to break all this up (especially the pesky almonds) while drizzling in olive oil. When relatively smooth, crumble in your toast and add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Whirl again, then taste. Add salt to your liking. Keep whirling until smooth and about the consistency of hummus. If it’s too thick, add olive oil or just plain water. If it’s too thin, add some more crumbled toast or almonds.
Brush scallions with olive oil and grill as before. Serve alongside the salvitxada sauce.
Grilled Scallions With Creamy Grilled Salsa Verde
Shopping list: Scallions, tomatillos, jalapenos, olive oil, cilantro, limes, avocado, skewers
Prepare your tomatillos: peel the papery husk off, then wash thoroughly until they’re not sticky anymore. Skewer maybe eight of them and place on the grill over medium-high heat. Watch them carefully and flip when they begin to develop splotchy black spots on the hot side. When blistered lightly all over and a bit soft to the touch, remove and let cool. Throw them in a food processor. De-stem and de-seed a jalapeno, chop it up, and throw it in too, adjusting how much depending on how much spice you want. I like a raw jalapeno for this, but you can grill it too for more smokiness and less spiciness. Throw in half a bunch of cilantro and about a quarter of an avocado, along with a squeeze of lime. Blend thoroughly while drizzling in a little bit of olive oil — not much, maybe a tablespoon. Add a little bit of water if it’s too thick or not blending well. Taste and season with salt. Grill scallions. Serve with sauce.
We’re still a couple of weeks away from cheap abundant delicious asparagus for grilling, but the weather is demanding that we get out and stand around hot fires in parks and backyards and on roofs. There isn’t really anything seasonal to grill quite yet, but there are scallions: cheap, grown year-round in nice hot places, and surprisingly delicious without being snobby.
Photo by Guy Montag