Harvest Time for I’itoi Onions

Big clump of iItoi onions. All this from just one little onion planted last October.

Big clump of  I’itoi onions. All this from just one little onion planted last October.

I had to put my vegetable garden to bed for the summer early this year since we were leaving for a month.  No use having the housesitter water for the weeks we were gone as the hot weather would overcome the vegetables about the time we got home anyhow. The plants were at the end of their season, but still pulling them up was almost as painful as putting down a beloved pet. I go through this mourning every year when one by one the winter crops reach the end of their production – first the peas, then the broccoli, then the last of the lettuce and spinach even in the shade. The kale was still so hearty I simply could not consign it to the compose bin. After freezing some for soup and making as many kale chips as we could handle, I dug up the plants and put them in a pot to transfer to a friend.

One chore involved pulling out the remaining I’itoi bunching (or multiplier) onions.  I’ve been using them all spring, but they are very prolific. One little onion that looks like this produced the bunch in my hands at the top of the page:

Lovely little iItoi onion with penny for size comparison.

Lovely little I’itoi onion with penny for size comparison.

I’itoi onions were brought to the Southwest in the 17th century by Spanish missionaries, but have become such a part of the Tohono O’odham biology that they are called by the name of their creation diety, Elder Brother, or I’itoi.  These little gems were beginning to die out when they were brought to Native Seeds SEARCH by a Tohono O’odham woman.  They are one of the plants in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. 

I’itoi onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are easy to grow — in the fall, just plant each bulb about an inch below the surface and at least eight inches apart.  They will send up chive-like greens first that can be used until you decide they have multiplied enough and pull them up for use.  When you harvest the last clump in the summer,  put aside a dozen or so bulbs in a paper bag and set aside on a cool shelf to await fall.  (I find it amusing that the onions “know” when to start again — if I don’t get around to putting them back in the ground until later in September, I sometimes find that they have begun to sprout in anticipation.)

To prepare onions for cooking, first separate and clean off the dirt,  then peel.

Like most onions, these contain potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and vitamin B6. Onions contain substantially the same amount of vitamins and minerals when cooked.  I’itoi onions can be substituted for onions or shallots.  You can find them at farmers’ markets and from Crooked Sky Farms in Prescott and the Phoenix area and from Native Seeds SEARCH. Both of these places will ship to you as well.

A healthy row of iItoi onions.

A healthy row of iItoi onions.

You’ll have a ratio of green tops to bulb of about 10:1 so you’ll have to find a use for all the green onion tops.   When you’ve used all you can fresh, freeze them to add to soup stock later. You can also make delicious Chinese Onion Pancakes.

Savory pancakes using onion tops.

Savory pancakes using onion tops. (Photo from Serious Eats)

It’s easy, but rather than recount the recipe here, go to this link. These are the best directions I’ve found for making this delicacy and the author also gives a wonderful tutorial on the difference between adding cold and hot water to flour.

If you’d like a recipe to show off your onion harvest, this one is easy and delicious.

I'itoi onions cooking for Sweet and Sour sauce.

I’itoi onions cooking for Sweet and Sour sauce.

 Sweet and Sour I’itoi Onions

Here’s my recipe for sweet and sour I’itoi onions.  You can use red wine and red wine vinegar or white wine and white wine vinegar. Makes a great topping for grilled fish or chicken or mix it into steamed vegetables to add flavor.

1 cup cleaned and sliced I’itoi onions

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

2 tablespoons wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar or agave syrup

1/2 cup water (again)

In a large heavy frying pan, cook sliced I’itoi onions and water covered over very low heat for 10 minutes until soft.  Add wine, wine vinegar, olive oil and sugar or agave syrup.  Cook over very low heat for another 10 minutes.

My blog sister Jacqueline Soule wrote a column about I’itoi onions for the Explorer and finished with a recipe for I’itoi onion and goat cheese scones. You can see it here


If you are interested in wild and heritage foods of the Southwest, check out my cookbooks Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants,   and the Prickly Pear Cookbook.  The books are also available through Native Seeds/SEARCH. For inspiration and directions on what wild plants are available in what season, watch a short video here.

4 thoughts on “Harvest Time for I’itoi Onions

  1. Pingback: Spring Grapefruit Salsa | Savor the Southwest:

  2. Pingback: Backyard Wolfberry Salsa | Savor the Southwest:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.