Stuffed vegetables are a central part of the Jewish culinary canon, but growing up I thought they were limited to cabbage and peppers. Only when I moved to Israel did I come to appreciate the sheer multitude of vegetables that can be stuffed — peppers and cabbage yes, but also tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, eggplant, onions, and more. Of all of them it was the stuffed onions that were a true revelation, those delicate, tear-inducing layers wrapped around sweet and savory mixtures of meat and stewed until rich and tender.
They make the perfect dish for Sukkot either as a side or centerpiece. While there are no foods specific to the fall harvest holiday, stuffed items — in the form of kreplach, stuffed vegetables, fruit-filled pastries, and whatever else you might imagine — have become the standard. Some believe that stuffed foods represent the bounty that comes with a good harvest. Others say that stuffed foods are akin to being wrapped in a Sukkah. On a practical level, stuffed vegetables can also be made ahead, are good hot or room temperature, and can be easily transported to the Sukkah. Whatever the reason, it’s a delicious custom.
As with most culinary traditions in Israel, you can find stuffed vegetables from around the world. In restaurants and people’s homes you might encounter Lebanese stuffed carrots or Eastern European stuffed cabbage, Syrian stuffed squash, or Turkish stuffed grape leaves. They’re common comfort food as well as elegant fare, a test of a cook’s skill in the kitchen.
And they’ve long been the jewels of Israeli cuisine. In a 1982 New York Times article on the subject, Jane Friedman wrote, “While the term pilgrimage may be easily associated with Israel, the land of milk and honey is not associated with gastronomic pilgrimage. Visitors expect to find gefilte fish, kishkes, and other European Jewish favorites, but often they find worse and report home about it. But Israel does boast stuffed vegetables, and not just stuffed cabbage.”
When creating my own recipe for stuffed onions worthy of a Sukkot dinner, I wanted to incorporate the sweet and savory flavors. I turned to my mother-in-law’s [sweet and sour meatballs](http://www.katherinemartinelli.com/blog/2012/sweet-and-sour-meatballs/] for inspiration, using her unlikely but delicious base of tomato and cranberry sauce as my starting point.
I added pomegranate molasses to both the sauce and the filling, a common ingredient in Syrian, Lebanese, and Persian cooking (often used with stuffed onions), for some sweet-tart flavor and a nod to the Sukkot significance of pomegranates. Spices, raisins, and rice filled out the meat filling, and the stuffed onion layers were simmered until saturated with flavor. The result is a harmony of taste sensations.
Sweet and Sour Stuffed Onions
Serves: 4 to 6
3 large white or Spanish onions
1 14-ounce jar plain tomato sauce
1 14-ounce can jellied cranberry sauce
¼ cup pomegranate molasses*
1 pound ground beef
¼ cup breadcrumbs
¼ cup long grain rice
¼ cup golden raisins (soaked in hot water for 5 minutes if very dry)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley or cilantro, for garnish
1) Cut a deep slit down the side of each onion from top to root end and peel off the outer skin. Put into a large pot of water and simmer for 20 minutes, until softened. Remove and pat dry.
2) Once cool enough to handle, carefully separate the onion layers and leave to dry. Roughly chop the middle section that can’t be stuffed and reserve.
3) Put the tomato sauce, cranberry sauce, 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, and all but ¼ cup reserved chopped onion in a deep saucepan with a lid and heat until fully combined and just simmering.
4) Thoroughly mix together the ground beef, breadcrumbs, rice, cinnamon, cumin, remaining 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses and reserved ¼ cup chopped onion. Season with salt and pepper.
5) Take one onion layer and put a small amount of meat filling in the center. Roll tightly and place in the sauce, seam-side down. Repeat with remaining onion and filling. (If you have any meat leftover, form into meatballs and place in the sauce as well.)
6) Cover the pot and simmer for 90 minutes, shaking occasionally (do not uncover).
7) Remove from the heat and serve (or allow to cool, refrigerate, and heat up before serving – the flavors only get better). Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro.
*Pomegranate molasses, also called pomegranate syrup or concentrate, is available in many supermarkets and most Middle Eastern stores. Alternately, you can make your own by boiling down pomegranate juice until thick and syrupy.