Mark Ballard

Vidalia onions, people are sweet

Just down the road a little south of Middle Georgia, the soil produces something very golden and sweet. Every spring, people count the days until they are harvested. Mouths watering, they can hardly wait to taste the wonderful sweetness of a Vidalia onion. It is just one of many unique treasures we are known for in Georgia, but it is very special. A Vidalia onion is great by itself and adds tons of flavor to almost any recipe.

I must confess that I am pretty familiar with a Vidalia onion. I not only grew up eating them, I’ve sent the last decade really examining them up-close and personal. It’s a pretty “sweet” story. Here is how the famous Vidalia onion and I began our relationship.

Back in 2002, I was asked to be a part of the Vidalia Onion Festival. They wanted me to demonstrate how to cook with their famous vegetable before a live audience. So I leafed through all of my cookbooks in search of Vidalia onion recipes. I packed my bowls, knives, cutting boards and ingredients and off to Vidalia I went. One thing I noticed upon my very first visit was that onions are not the only sweet thing Vidalia produces.

The audience that afternoon and everyone I saw around town was friendly and nice. It seems the mild climate and sandy, low sulfur soil not only brings out the “sweetness” in onions but also people. Right then and there, I felt welcomed and loved.

Almost every year since then, I have been invited back. The second year, I decided to hand-paint some ceramic bowls, dishes and platters on which to serve my finished recipes. You know how much I love a theme. To my surprise, the people of Vidalia went nuts over my original dishes. They wanted to purchase them. In fact, several ladies almost came to blows over them. Needless to say, I left that evening with a bag of Vidalia onions and none of my hand-painted serving pieces.

The next year I decided to do more. Again, they were snatched up before I could even serve on them. Ladies were hiding them behind their purses and taking them to their cars before my program even began. I was left to depend on paper products and borrowed platters for me to use on stage.

Knowing that I had done porcelain plates to honor Macon’s Cherry Blossom Festival, a lady in Vidalia suggested I do the same thing with a Vidalia onion. In my mind, even though their onions are sweet and golden, I just couldn’t see them being as beautiful on a porcelain plate as the delicate pink cherry blossoms. Each year when I was asked about a plate, I replied, “I’ll think about it!”

Finally five years ago, I caved under the increasing pressure and agreed to design and produce a porcelain plate featuring Vidalia onions for the next year. I didn’t know how it would be received, but I loaded them up and off to Vidalia I went.

Nothing prepared me for what happened next. Just like we can’t wait for their famous Vidalia onions to get ready, these folks couldn’t wait for the porcelain plates featuring them. Each year since then, I have created an annual Vidalia onion porcelain plate. There are four plates so far in the series. In fact, last year’s plate is now on permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Boy, am I glad I listened to those ladies!

Last Saturday evening, I had the great pleasure to once again visit Vidalia and not only entertain the “sweet” people of Vidalia but also visitors from across the nation.

We all had such a great time as I prepared several recipes featuring their famous onion.

We then shared samples of the recipes with the audience.

Since I was in Vidalia, which has sweet residents and produces sweet onions, I wanted to end the evening with a sweet note. So I baked and decorated a cupcake for each attendee. When it came to what I would put on the top of each confection, well, that was a no-brainer. I tinted the icing to look like dirt, added cookie crumbs for texture and then planted an almond-flavored cream cheese icing ONION right in the middle of each cupcake! It was my way of returning the “sweet” favor!

Beef Vidalia

2 pounds deli-style roast beef or sirloin steak, thinly sliced

1 large Vidalia onion, thinly sliced

1 large or 4 small loaves French bread

1/2 cup butter, softened

Shredded lettuce

Provolone or Monterey Jack cheese

MARINADE

1/4 cup wine vinegar

1 cup salad oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/3 cup dill pickles, chopped

Makes four servings.

Mix ingredients for marinade and pour over beef and onions. Marinate overnight in a glass dish. Next day, slice bread and completely butter the cut surfaces. Drain beef and onions well and arrange over the bottom half of bread. Wrap in foil and bake in 350-degree oven until heated through. Remove and place cheese slice on bottom half. Wrap again until cheese melts. When ready to serve, remove to cutting board. Put shredded lettuce on top of beef mixture. Cover with top half of bread. Cut in four slices, toothpick together and place on serving platter. 

Green Bean and Corn Casserole

1 can French cut green beans, drained

1 can shoepeg white corn, drained

1 can cream of celery soup

1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese

1/2 cup chopped Vidalia onions

1/2 cup sour cream

1 package Ritz crackers, crushed

1 stick butter, melted

Layer green beans and corn in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.  Mix soup, cheese, onion and sour cream. Layer this mixture over green beans and corn. Mix the melted butter and crackers. Sprinkle over the top of the casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

More with Mark

n Check out Mark’s Web site at www.markballard.com for current projects, recipes and lots of other fun stuff and Mark’s new 2010 spring T-shirts, prints and cards.

n Mark is on www. macon.com 24 hours a day. Videos, columns and articles are featured.

Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; fax them to (478) 474-4930 or call (478) 757-6877.

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