Thursday, May 30, 2013

Middle Eastern Stuffed Onions

In the last few months I've watched two impressive documentaries focused on the passing on of an acclaimed restaurant from father to son.  Side-by-side the documentaries are a perfect cultural Venn Diagram around the craft of food in the East and/or West.  The first was Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which documents the career and retirement of famous chef Jiro Ono as he prepares to hand his understated, but globally recognized Tokyo sushi bar over to his oldest son, Yoshikazu.  The second was the French documentary Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras), which tells a nearly identical story line about Michel Bras and his oldest son, Sébastien (except that Bras' restaurant is a lot less understated). 

While I saw the second film about three months after the first, I highly recommend watching them one after another.  In fact, I'd like to watch Jiro again just to do a closer cultural comparison.  Obviously, both films honor the incredible careers of Ono and Bras, but what I found most interesting were the comparison between Yoshikazu and Séba...both middle-aged men who diligently worked to become equally talented enough to open their own successful restaurants, if they had chosen a more independent path.  In Japan it is traditional for the eldest son to inherit his father's business, and Séba seems inspired by that despite a very contrasting Western worldview that glorifies the self-made man.  But despite Japanese tradition, or simply Séba's sense of duty, both documentaries acutely depict the intense amount of pressure both sons feel as they follow in their fathers' footsteps.  Each son must walk the extremely fine line that allows them to develop their own culinary identities while adhering to the culinary traditions of their family and culture.  The outcome for both is artistic mastery, I think.

If the cultural context of each film doesn't interest you so much, they're both very good food documentaries in their own right.  The amount of care and craftsmanship taken with the ingredients and cooking process is really well filmed.  Step Up to the Plate, in particular, highlights contemporary French cuisine as an intensive design process from the market to the plate.  
One dish Sébastien Bras creates, in particular, inspired this post...very loosely.  He roasted a whole onion, carefully removed the outer layers, and stuffed it with some sort of creamy, cheesy, Frenchy filling.  I was mostly impressed with how beautiful the roasted onion looked.  However, lacking the hours it would have taken to roast a whole onion, I opted for a faster method of cooking it whole.  And, lacking the desire to consume such a rich dish, I made a Middle Eastern filling of barley, chickpeas, and vegetables instead.  So, yes, quite a loose inspiration.  Inspiration, nonetheless.

Ingredients (makes about 6 stuffed onions):
  • 4 medium sized onions
  • 1 can (15 oz.) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 cup barley
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. cumin
  • 1 tbsp. coriander
  • 1/2 tbsp. ground mustard
  • 1/2 tbsp. salt
  • 1/2 tbsp. pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice 

Bring a very large pot of water to a boil and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Trim about 1/2 inch off each end of the onions, and peel away the skin and any tough outer layers.  Once the water is boiling, add the onions for 10-12 minutes.
While the onions cook, chop your vegetables and mix your spices.
Once the onions are completely softened, remove them from the boiling water (don't discard the water!).  Submerge the onions in a bowl of cold water to cool.  Then, slice another 1/2 inch off the wider end in order to force the inner layers out the top.  This should leave the outer layers behind as a cup.
Bring about three cups of the remaining onion water to a boil in a smaller sauce pan, and add the barley, bay leaves, and cloves to cook at medium heat for 10 minutes (or until soft).  Drain when finished and set aside in a large large bowl.

Heat a small frying pan on the stove with 2 tbsp. of olive oil.  Roughly chop 2 of the inner layers of onion you have left over and add them to the hot oil with salt and pepper for seasoning.  Once softened and browned, add the chopped tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes.  Finally, add the chickpeas and mixed spices and stir into a chunky paste.
Stir the chickpea/vegetable mixture into the barley and add the parsley and lemon juice.  Arrange the onion cups in a square baking dish (I used an 8x8 glass dish), and fill with this mixture.  There should be some of the stuffing remaining to eat (yes).  
I then filled in some of the empty space in the dish with the remaining onion I had, and brushed it lightly with olive oil.  Cook it covered with foil for about 30 minutes, then uncovered for another 30 minutes so it is golden brown. 

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