They may be hit and miss raw on a burger, but cooked onions are an easy sell to the 64,000 students in Jason Morse’s school lunch program.
“We do them enough that if the kids didn’t like them we would all know about it,” said Morse, executive chef for the Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colo.
One look at his dietician-approved menu explains why. There are honey-stewed onions on a sausage pizza, onions on the roasted vegetable and balsamic pizza and roasted peppers and onions in Tuesday’s “street” tacos.
“We like reds, they have good flavor,” he said. “Local yellow onions tend to be nice and sweet — we have a huge push for local produce. From time to time we’ll switch to whites.”
When he’s not feeding kids, Morse helps the National Onion Association with events and demonstrations.
“I always tell people that onions are great to cook with and have wonderful flavor no matter how you use them,” he said.
“A lot of people are afraid they’re going to have that onion taste.”
He advises playing around with onions in the kitchen to discover the many ways they can add flavor.
“You can char onions on the grill and add garlic for a charred onion spread,” he said. “That’s the same onion you might shave on a burger and eat raw. Or put the spread on a bagel with shaved turkey and you have a nice sandwich with lots of flavor.”
Nelia Alamo, vice president sales and marketing for Oxnard, Calif.-based onion processor Gills Onions, said caramelized and pickled onions are hot on menus across the country, and onions continue to stand out in ragouts, salsa, soups and chutneys.
“Onions aren’t just a flavor base note in thousands of dishes,” Alamo said. “Today they are more and more becoming the top note and stars on the plate.”
Kim Reddin, director of public and industry Relations Greely, Colo.-based National Onion Association, said chefs who mention caramelized onions on a roast beef sandwich or other item can charge an average of $1.80 more for that item.
“That’s a big profit margin,” Reddin said.
While regular onions may be an easy sell, branded sweet onion growers have a harder time getting their premium-priced crop into major restaurant chains.
“Foodservice has been a roller coaster ride as guys try to work out their pricing and offer a few menu innovations,” said chef Dave Munson, research and development at Greencastle, Pa.-based Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc.
Aside from the higher price, chains such as Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday have a difficult time adding new items, Munson said.
He sees dishes such as his popular artichoke and sweet onion salad as a tasty side on any menu.
“If there’s any activity, it’s going to be on the fine dining side where chefs have more independence,” he said, “but that’s not where a lot of our food dollars go.”
Sarah Seebran, director of marketing for Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms, agrees price is a barrier to getting more sweet onions into restaurants outside Georgia, where everyone gets caught up in Vidalia fever in the spring and summer.