In 2015, the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization of conservative Jewish rabbis, lifted the longstanding ban on eating kitniyot (such as legumes, beans, rice, and corn) during Passover. For many Ashkenazi Jews, this meant the rabbinic green light to serve rice, lentils, chickpeas, corn, beans, and spices like mustard and cardamom at the Seder table — the first significant menu change in about 800 years.
For Sephardic Jews, however, things went on as usual. Since they never banned these ingredients, they could always include dishes like hummus, spiced lentils, braised broad beans, and rice-stuffed vegetables on their Passover menus. Now Ashkenazi families can consider taking in some of them too.
An excellent option comes from Israeli chef Shimi Aaron. Aaron, a former jeweler and chef at EllaMia Bakery and Cafe, is widely known for his lavish, gold-dusted babkas, which he wouldn’t serve at 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 Passover table embracing Kitniyot.
Aaron enjoys using complex flavor combinations to transform simple ingredients into something exquisite and unexpected. Roasting onions in a bath of pomegranate juice with honey, dill, and olive oil makes them glitter like gems, then melt in your mouth. Short grain rice, cooked in the same casserole dish, turns out tender, plump and pleasantly gooey, infused with tangy sweetness and a blend of spices.
“People are skeptical that it’s just rice and onions, but that’s deceptive,” Aaron said. “I love it when food seems simple, but then surprises you with the taste.”
In his original recipe, Aaron boiled the whole, peeled onions, separated the layers into petals, and then carefully layered the onions around the pine nut sprinkled rice. This streamlined version keeps the flavors but simplifies the form. The rice is placed in the bottom of a casserole dish, then sliced raw purple and yellow onions are shingled on top. It’s just as colorful and pretty, but a lot easier to put together, which is a boon for an otherwise work-intensive holiday meal.
When he’s not preparing this dish for Passover, Aaron is happy to offer it as a meatless first course or light main course, or as an accompaniment to fried chicken or fish. However you serve it, it’s bound to be the showpiece on the table. And it tastes as good as it looks.
Recipe: Pomegranate Baked Rice and Onions with Dill
Recipe by 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 mix, such as garam masala)
1 cup coarsely chopped dill (or 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 yogurt, for serving (optional)
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and lightly butter a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish or large shallow gratin dish.
2. Roughly chop one of the yellow onions. Cut the remaining yellow and red onions, 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, partially covered, until onions are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the onions, reserving the onion broth. (You should have about 3/4 to 1 cup broth.) Place onions in bowl and set broth and onions aside.
4. In the same skillet (no cleaning needed), melt 6 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add the pine nuts and fry, 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 the rice softens slightly and absorbs most of the liquid, about 15 minutes. If the mixture starts to stick to the pan, add an additional tablespoon or two of onion broth.
6. Stir in the dill. Pour the rice mixture into the prepared casserole dish in an even layer. Clapboard slices on top, alternating 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. Cover the pan and bake until the rice is tender and the onions are soft, shiny, and sticky, about 35 to 45 minutes longer. Serve with yogurt and more dill, if you like.