In 2015, the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization of Conservative Jewish rabbis, repealed a long-standing ban on eating kitniotes (such as legumes, beans, rice and corn) during Passover. For many Ashkenazi Jews, this meant a rabbinical green light for serving rice, lentils, chickpeas, corn, beans, and spices such as mustard and cardamom at the Seder table—the first significant menu change in nearly 800 years.
For Sephardic Jews, however, it was business as usual. Never banning these ingredients, they could always include vegetables stuffed with hummus, pickled lentils, braised fava beans and rice in their Passover menu. Now Ashkenazi families may consider including some of them as well.
An excellent choice comes from Israeli chef Shimi Aaron. Aaron, a former jeweler who cooks at the bakery and Cafe Alamia, is widely known for his sumptuous, gold-dusted babkas, which he wouldn’t suggest serving for Passover. But their dish of candied onions stuffed with rice, dill, and pine nuts is just as scrumptious and would be a lively addition to any kitniyot-hugging Passover table.
Aaron likes to use complex flavor combinations to turn simple ingredients into something classy and unexpected. Roasting onion in pomegranate juice with honey, fennel and olive oil makes it glow like gems, then melts in the mouth. Short-grain rice cooked in the same casserole dish turns out tender, thick and pleasingly sticky, with a tangy sweetness and a blend of spices.
“People suspect it’s just rice and onions, but it’s a hoax,” Aaron said. “I love it when the food seems simple but then surprises you with the taste.”
In his original recipe, Aaron boiled whole, peeled onions, separating the layers into petals, then carefully reassembling the bulbs around pine nut-speckled rice. This streamlined version retains the flavors but simplifies the look. Rice is spooned into the bottom of the baking dish, then chopped raw purple and yellow onions are poured over the top. It’s just as colorful and pretty, but much easier to put together, which is a boon for an otherwise labor-intensive holiday meal.
When he’s not making this dish for Passover, Aaron likes to serve 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 will definitely be the most tempting thing on the table. And it tastes as good as it looks.
Recipe: Pomegranate Cooked Rice and Dill with Onions
Recipe from Shimmy 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 peels, thinly sliced
1 cup arborio or other short grain rice
1 Tbsp Baharat (or use another aromatic spice blend like garam masala)
1 cup finely chopped scallion (or use any combination of scallion, 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 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
Plain Greek yogurt, for serving (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or large, shallow gratin dish.
2. Roughly chop one yellow onion. Cut 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 the chopped yellow onion, 2 cups water, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook, partially covered, until onion is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the onions, reserving the onion broth. (You should have about 3/4 to 1 cup broth.) Transfer onions to a bowl, and set broth and onions aside.
4. In 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.
5. Add rice and cooked, chopped onions. Add bahrat, 1 tsp salt and 3 tbsp onion broth. Cook, stirring occasionally, until rice is slightly softened and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. If the mixture begins to stick to the skillet, add another tablespoon or two of onion broth.
6. Stir in dill. Pour the rice mixture into the prepared baking dish in an even layer. Shingles onions are on top, alternating between red and yellow onions.
7. Combine pomegranate juice, olive oil, honey, pepper, remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup onion broth in a medium bowl. Pour over onions and rice.
8. Cover the pan with foil and bake for 50 minutes. Open the pan and continue to bake until the rice is tender and the onion is soft, shiny and sticky, about 35 to 45 minutes longer. Serve with yogurt, if you like, and more dill.