In 2015, the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization of Conservative Jewish rabbis, revoked the long-standing prohibition of eating kitniyot (such as legumes, beans, rice and corn) during Passover. For many Ashkenazi Jews, this meant a rabbinical green light for serving the likes of rice, lentils, chickpeas, corn, beans and spices like mustard and cardamom at the Seder table — the first significant menu change in approximately 800 years.
For Sephardic Jews, however, it was business as usual. Having never banned these ingredients, they could always include dishes like hummus, spiced lentils, braised fava beans and rice-stuffed vegetables on their Passover menus. Now Ashkenazi families can consider including some of them, too.
An excellent option comes from Israeli chef Shimi Aaron. Aaron, a former jeweler who is the chef of the bakery and cafe EllaMia, is widely known for his opulent, gold-dusted babkas, which he would not suggest serving for Passover. But his dish of candied onions, loaded with rice, dill and pine nuts, is just as stunning and would make a lively addition to any kitniyot-embracing Passover table.
Aaron likes to use complex flavor combinations to transform simple ingredients into something exquisite and unexpected. Roasting onions in a bath of pomegranate juice laced with honey, dill and olive oil makes them glisten like gems, then melt in your mouth. Short-grain rice, cooked in the same casserole dish, becomes tender, plump and pleasingly sticky, suffused with tangy sweetness and a blend of spices.
“People are skeptical that it’s just rice and onions, but that’s deceiving,” Aaron said. “I love it when food seems simple but then surprises you with the flavor.”
In his original recipe, Aaron boiled the whole, peeled onions, separated the layers into petals, then carefully reassembled the bulbs around pine nut-speckled rice. This streamlined version retains the flavors but simplifies the form. The rice is spooned into the bottom of a baking dish, then sliced raw purple and yellow onions are shingled on top. It is just as colorful and pretty but much easier to put together, which is a boon for an otherwise labor-intensive holiday meal.
When he is not making this dish for Passover, Aaron likes to offer it as a meatless first course or light main course, or as a side dish with roasted chicken or fish. Any way you serve it, it is bound to be the most striking thing on the table. And it tastes as good as it looks.
Recipe: Pomegranate Baked Rice and Onions With Dill
Recipe from Shimi Aaron
Adapted by Melissa Clark
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 2 1/2 hours
6 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegan butter, plus more for greasing the pan
3 medium yellow onions, peeled
2 medium red onions, peeled
1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed
1/2 cup pine nuts
6 small or 3 large shallots, thinly sliced
1 cup Arborio or other short-grain rice
1 tablespoon baharat (or use another aromatic spice blend, such as garam masala)
1 cup coarsely chopped dill (or use any combination of dill, cilantro and mint), plus more for serving
1 1/2 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey or agave
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Plain Greek yogurt, for serving (optional)
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or large, shallow gratin dish.
2. Coarsely chop one of the yellow onions. Cut the remaining yellow and red onions from root to stem into 3/4-inch-thick wedges and set aside.
3. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, combine chopped yellow onions, 2 cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook, partly covered, until onions are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain onions, saving the onion broth. (You should have about 3/4 to 1 cup broth.) Transfer onions to a bowl, and set aside broth and onions.
4. In the same skillet (no need to clean it), melt 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add pine nuts and cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 to 4 minutes. Stir in shallots and cook until tender, 4 to 6 minutes longer.
5. Add rice and cooked, chopped onions. Stir in baharat, 1 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons onion broth. Cook, stirring occasionally, until rice softens slightly and absorbs most of the liquid, about 15 minutes. If the mixture starts to stick to the pan, add another tablespoon or two of onion broth.
6. Stir in dill. Spoon rice mixture into the prepared baking dish in an even layer. Shingle onion wedges on top, alternating between red and yellow onions.
7. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together pomegranate juice, olive oil, honey, pepper, remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup onion broth. Pour over the onions and rice.
8. Cover pan with foil and bake for 50 minutes. Uncover pan and continue to bake until the rice is tender and onions are soft, glossy and sticky, about 35 to 45 minutes longer. Serve with yogurt, if you like, and more dill.