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From New York’s Black Dirt, a Glacial Secret
Told by Onions
By MATT LEE and TED LEE
Published: NY Times October 24, 2007
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
RICH SOIL The black earth in Orange County, N.Y., grows some
of the best cooking onions.
THROUGH an odd twist of geological fate, some of North America’s
most fertile soil lies an hour’s drive from Manhattan pavement,
in the 22 square miles of Orange County, N.Y., known as the “Black
So what do farmers grow in this miracle earth? For about a century,
the area has been known for onions, producing some of the spiciest
alliums available, thanks to the soil’s high sulfur content, which
boosts pyruvic acid, that irritating and delicious compound that
makes eyes well up at the cutting board.
A visit to a New York City Greenmarket bears out that legacy:
at the stands of Paffenroth Gardens, from Warwick, and S. & S.O.
Produce Farms from Goshen, the onions on display bunches of
slender, magenta-colored scallions to shallots the size and hue
of hazelnuts seem to make up a full third of each farm’s offerings.
The vast majority of onions grown in the Black Dirt or “muck
soil,” as it’s known locally are nevertheless those plain-Jane
yellow storage onions, about the size of a baseball (and just
as hard) with a coppery paper skin, the kind sold in East Coast
grocery stores in two-, three- and five-pound mesh bags. They’re
virtually anonymous in the marketplace; you’ll know they were
grown in the Black Dirt towns of Warwick, Goshen, Florida and
Pine Island only if you read the fine print, or spy the jet-black
soil that occasionally still clings to their roots.
Do not underestimate these workhorse onions, which are available
from the beginning of harvest in August through February or March:
cooking with them side-by-side with the sweet “Granex” varieties
(think Vidalia, Maui, Imperial Valley, Walla Walla, etc.), reveals
that they are unquestionably superior for cooking. They may not
have a catchy trademark or a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign,
but they speak loud and clear on the plate, for one simple reason:
“With other soils, you’re lucky if you have 10 percent organic
matter,” said Maire Ullrich, an Orange County agricultural extension
agent. “In the Black Dirt, we have 30 to 50 percent and sometimes
up to 90 percent organic matter. It’s basically a giant bowl of
About 12,000 years ago, when glaciers receded from what is now
lower New York State, they left behind pockets of low-lying bogland
that built up deep layers of decayed plant matter. It wasn’t until
the early 1900s that German, Polish and Dutch immigrants to Orange
County drained the bogs with a network of ditches, revealing a
sulfur- and nitrogen-rich black soil that in some places is 30
feet deep. In summertime satellite photographs of lower New York
State, it’s visible as a smear of blacks and browns at the bottom
edge of the emerald-green Catskills.
you drive along Route 6, the main artery through the fields, you
find onion-packing sheds at the roadside with spidery Allis-Chalmers
tractors parked in front. In the fall, you’re likely to see giant
harvesters grazing the fields, stirring plumes of dust in their
Two broad, toothed conveyors at the front of the harvester lift
the onions from the dirt. Inside the machine, their green tops
are sheared off, and the onions then tumble into the bed of a
truck that sidles along with the harvester. We hopped in the cab
of a vintage Army dump-truck driven by Chris Pawelski, a fourth-generation
onion farmer, as he maneuvered the truck’s bed beneath the chute
of the harvester being driven by his brother, Brian. In about
15 minutes, the truck held a five-ton payload of onions, and we
were completely blanketed in what looked like powdered coal.
Although Granex onions have a reputation for sweetness “You
can eat them like an apple” goes the old saw that’s because
they contain more water and significantly less pyruvic acid. Orange
County yellow onions contain nearly as much sugar but because
they have less water, they caramelize more readily in the pan.
These onions also stay firm longer after an intense fry or a long,
slow roast. Their flavor mellows nicely with cooking, the ample
sugars are revealed, and their wonderfully brassy flavor is preserved.
We sought out a few rib-sticking, autumnal onion dishes from
farmers and chefs in the Black Dirt region.
James Haurey, chef at the Crystal Inn, a restaurant in Warwick,
makes a classic cream-based onion soup that is masterfully minimal.
To show off the freshness of the onion, he resists caramelizing
it, choosing instead a long, slow braise in butter, olive oil
and dry white wine. Once puréed, the silky, lily-white soup that
results is naturally quite sweet, almost fruity. It’s rich enough
that it thickens to custard consistency at room temperature, and
it can double as a sauce for roast lamb (what Francophiles might
recognize as a sauce soubise, minus the starch), or as a base
for any number of other ideas, like fish chowder, pasta sauce
or ham-and-bean soup.
Cheryl Rogowski, who was princess of the 1983 Orange County Onion
Harvest Festival (and more recently a recipient of a MacArthur
fellowship), farms about 150 acres of black dirt at W. Rogowski
Farm, which sells at the farmers’ markets in Sunnyside, Queens,
and East New York, Brooklyn, on Saturdays and in Carroll Gardens,
Brooklyn, on Sundays. Though her father raised acres of standard
yellow onions, she like many muck farmers now is diversifying,
planting a range of garden vegetables, including specialty onions
like scallions and cipollini. Her family’s recipe for onion pie
is a brunch hero a tart in a Saltine-cracker crust that bakes
up into the richest, cheesiest omelet you ever made atop a layer
of deeply caramelized onions.
Ms. Rogowski’s version calls for a mix of onions (“whatever’s
available”) and a mix of cheeses (“Basically, I clean out the
fridge,” she wrote). We made ours with 100 percent Orange County
yellow onions and 100 percent extra-sharp Empire State cheddar,
and we can attest that the pie was as bold and arresting as a
New York accent.