Calabria is famous for its sweet red onions named after the glamorous beach town of Tropea. During the month of May and June you can buy them freshly harvested at roadside farm stands.
Later, in June and July, they are sold at markets strung in a ristra.
The main growing area is south of Tropea, around Ricardi and Capo Vaticano. You will find these onions grown all over Calabria but the ones grown close to the sea are extremely sweet because of the sandy soil and the mild climate throughout the year. They come in two shapes, torpedo and flat round. I grow both types in my garden. If you want to grow them you can order the seeds online from Seeds from Italy or Garden Edibles and start them in early fall. You will then need to transplant them in October, and by June they'll be ready to eat. Here is what they look like in my garden right now:
In Calabria these red onions are eaten raw in salads; cooked in sauces; roasted or grilled; placed on top of pizza or in frittate; made into jam, and even added to ice cream!
Last year when I was in Calabria in May, right when they were being sold as young fresh red onions, I enjoyed them roasted under salt at Casa Janca in Pizzo. I never had them prepared this way and it was the most wonderful side dish of the evening. Signora Rita Callipo roasted them under a crust of salt and then served them with only a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. I could have made an entire meal out of them. They were so good that when I got back home I pulled some young red onions from my garden and prepared them the same way. I just made them again last night and decided to share this simple recipe with you.
If you have never cooked under salt don't be afraid of the quantity required. The salt seals the food and keeps it moist, yet it doesn't get into the food. I roast whole fish under salt and it is truly the best way to prepare it. You can get my recipe for seabass under a crust of salt in my cookbook due out this fall.
Red onions just pulled from my garden:
Clean the fresh red onions by removing their roots and stems.
Mix 1.5 lbs of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (a half box) with enough water (about 1 cup) to make it the consistency of sand. Use only Diamond Crystal kosher salt; other brands are made by a different process, so the crystals have a different shape and are less absorbent.
Place a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet, which will make cleaning easier, and make a bed of salt.
Lay the onions on top and cover them with the wet salt. Pat the salt down and make sure that no part of the onion is exposed.
Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Crack the salt crust.
Remove the onions and clean any salt that sticks to them. I also remove the outer layer of the onion.
Cut the onions in half and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with a little sea salt if needed.
Give it a try. They are so good!