Just after Rosh Hashanah I posted my first-ever attempt at an elaborate Syrian Jewish dish of sweet-and-sour stuffed eggplants with quince, and because I had more stuffing than I needed, I went for seconds with Aromas of Aleppo on the spot and tried out the Mehshi Basal, or stuffed onions with tamarind sauce, which was actually even better. It was easier to put together and I was patting myself on the back when we tasted the results.
Still, given that I was using a lentil stuffing in place of ground beef, I was a little dismayed at how long the traditional braising and roasting took to cook the onions all the way through–an hour and a half at least, and that was after stuffing them. A second attempt in November, this time exclusively with stuffed onions for a congregation brunch, did no better on time, and I came away thinking that roasting was an extremely inefficient way to cook these–might even have toughened them inadvertently.
Why, you have to ask, should I make such a big deal about stuffed onions–they’re a party trick, after all, not standard cooking. But we discovered we really liked them, and they’re a pretty good kind of party trick. They were a surprise hit at the brunch. If I hadn’t snuck myself one while setting up in the kitchen, I’d have missed out altogether.
Actually, I think they fascinated everyone as much for the magic trick as for the flavor. People who’d never tasted them before kept coming up to me–and even my daughter–to ask, “How do you get the filling into the onions???”
If they hadn’t been so time-consuming I could have made double the amount and they’d still have disappeared. Or I could throw them together easily just for us on the odd weeknight as a treat–but one with some iron and fiber in it–instead of the standard pasta or rice.
So in the time since, I’ve finally rethought the process and come up with something that requires no oven time and cuts the actual cooking after stuffing them down to about 20 minutes or so–as long as you already have some cooked lentils (microwaved to perfection in about 10 minutes of cooking time and 30-4o minutes of standing time) and tamarind sauce (or “mock tamarind” sauce, a 5-minute microwave-assisted blend of prunes and/or apricots with water and some lemon juice, plus-or-minus tomato paste, applesauce and other flourishes you don’t really need for this) to hand.
I know, you probably don’t have these things sitting around. But this recipe might change your mind. Lentils are good stuff even on their own, and the stuffing here is a knockout.
Even genuine tamarind sauce isn’t so bad anymore, assuming you don’t or can’t just buy a prepared concentrate. I’ve sped the process up from an hour-plus to a few minutes just by nuking it, pulsing in a food processor, and this time, neither filtering it quite so aggressively as I did back in September NOR bothering to boil the stuff down to a sticky residue. It’s so much less painful, and I think it even tastes better, with more of the fruit character left in. See my notes at the end of the post for how to do it the quickie way (in modest jam-jar quantities, not quarts).
Anyway, back to the stuffed onions. I’m actually proud of myself for this one, and I’ve tried it three times in a row so I can vouch for it–the last time, I put my daughter to work stuffing the onion layers, and she did a great job.
For this method all you need are a microwave oven, a frying pan and a food processor. Instead of boiling the onions for 20 minutes to separate the layers, you microwave them in a drizzle of water for 5. Instead of braising the stuffed onion rolls for 30 minutes in liquid nearly to cover, which makes a mess, you steam them, again in the microwave, in just a quarter-inch of water for 3-5 minutes. Instead of the stuffing swelling so much they risk falling apart, the steamed rolls hold together, so you don’t have to be an expert roller. Then instead of oven-roasting them for another hour or more just to get them cooked through, you simply pan-fry the rolls to brown them a few minutes on each side, like blintzes. Heat a little of the tamarind sauce with a pinch or so of sugar and it thickens up in the pan in seconds. Pour it over the browned onion rolls and you’re done.
The results are not only savory but tender–actually, a lot more tender than the traditional, and the onion rolls reheat well in the microwave the next day. I think it would work pretty well with other stuffed vegetables as well–maybe not zucchini cups, which might be hard to fry, but certainly stuffed eggplants, long Anaheim peppers, even cabbage rolls. Those are definitely next.
Quick Stuffed Onions (Microwave Mehshi Basal?)
1. Peel and trim 2-3 whole medium-to-large onion(s)–or just one big one if you’re serving only 3-4 people a couple each as a side dish. Each onion gives about 7-10 finished rolls. Make a vertical cut just in to the center. Place them in a microwaveable container with a quarter-inch of water in the bottom and a lid on top, and microwave 4-5 minutes on HIGH.
1a. While the onions are cooking, blend up the “hashu” stuffing in a food processor if you haven’t already:
- 2-3 c. cooked green lentils (from about 1/2 lb dry) for 3 med-large onions–may as well make the whole thing and fridge the remainder if you only do one onion at a time.
- 1/3 c. ground or soaked and drained rice, or about the same amount of cooked rice refreshed for 15 seconds or so in the microwave with a drizzle of water and drained.
- 1/2 onion chopped and browned quickly in olive oil
- 1 t each allspice and cinnamon
- good grinding of black pepper
- 1/2 t salt
- 1/4 t each of ground coriander and ground fennel, optional
- 2 medium or 1 large clove garlic
2. The onions should be mostly cooked through and the layers should be separating, near collapse. Run the onions under cold water to cool them–they’ll be pretty hot inside for a while, so you might get the first couple of layers off and change the cooling water as needed for the rest. Take a soup spoon and separate each layer gently–lay the layers out on a plate and let them cool further.
3. Stuff the onion layers with a tablespoon of stuffing each and roll fairly tightly but don’t panic. As long as the ends overlap and the onion doesn’t unroll you’re ok. Place all the rolls in a microwaveable container with a quarter-inch of water in the bottom and a lid (see picture at the top of this post), and microwave 3-4 minutes. The filling will swell a bit but it won’t make anywhere near as much mess as if you were braising on the stovetop. There should be no more “uncooked onion” aroma left–if there is, nuke 1 more minute.
4. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a nonstick frying pan and brown the cooked onion rolls in a single layer for a few minutes, turning them carefully to get both sides–this gives them more roasted flavor and makes them look nicer, but it doesn’t dry them out as badly as oven roasting so they shouldn’t end up tough.
5. As soon as they’re done and smelling good, turn them out onto a platter or bowl and heat maybe half a cup or so (depending how many onion rolls) of tamarind sauce (either 3 T concentrate to 1/2 c. water or just 1/2 c. dilute sauce, see below) with a small spoonful of sugar and a pinch of salt in the frying pan until it thickens, then pour it over the onion rolls and serve.
NOTES on speeding up the lentils and tamarind sauce:
Lentils: A pound of rinsed and sorted lentils can cook in the microwave for 10 minutes under an inch or so of water, covered, and then soak up on its own for half an hour or so while you do other things–almost anything, in fact. You can freeze half for later and just thaw it in the microwave when you want it next.
Tamarind sauce: A small block of pressed tamarind pulp (seeds removed) is inexpensive and surprisingly easy to nuke in water for 5 minutes, pour into a food processor or blender, and then strain casually through a reasonably fine-mesh wire strainer or colander rather than trying to get every micron of particulate filtered through coffee filters. Scoop the big fibrous bits up the sides and out of the way with a fork so they don’t block the holes. DON’T bother boiling it down. Use what you’re using right away and microwave whatever’s left over on HIGH for 5 minutes (covered is good). Then add a little lemon juice or a shake of citric acid (Rokeach or the like, sometimes labeled “sour salt”) to retard spoilage. It’s not attractive until cooked further–kind of a murky brown silt, but the fine-silt part of the fruit pulp is actually fine, tastes good, and helps the sauce thicken nicely in just a few seconds. It also turns a better-looking reddish-brown once you heat it. I’ve kept the dilute sauce in the fridge for several weeks. Or you could freeze it for longer-term storage. But for my money I don’t ever need to boil down the extract ever, ever again.
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