Stuffed and filled foods are a Sukkot tradition because they symbolize an abundant harvest and plenty.
These stuffed onions in a spicy tomato sauce are a hearty addition for meals in the sukkah. The long cooking brings out the onions’ sweetness, and the mix of seasonings (inspired by traditional Libyan Jewish ingredients) adds a complex, slightly sharp blend of fragrant spices that complements the beef and sauce. The recipe doubles well and can be made in advance.
Sadly, the Jewish community in Libya is no more, although many Jews of Libyan descent live in Israel and Italy.
Stuffed Onions in Libyan-Spiced Tomato Sauce
- ½ cup white basmati rice
- Libyan-inspired spice mix (see below), divided
- About 2 lbs. jumbo or large yellow onions (see notes)
- 1 tsp. plus 1 Tbs. olive oil
- ¾ tsp. salt, divided
- 15-oz. can plain tomato sauce
- ¼ tsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. paprika, divided
- 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped garlic
- ¼ cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
- 1 Tbs. tomato paste
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 8 oz. ground beef
Rinse and drain rice repeatedly until water is clear. Soak in water for at least 1 hour. (Or soak overnight at room temperature.)
Make spice mix (below). Heat oven to 450 degrees. Peel onions. Trim ends flat. Slice in half around the “waist.” Set each half cut side up. With a paring knife, cut a cavity about 2 inches in diameter and about ¾-inch to 1-inch deep. (Plug any holes with onion pieces.) Finely chop onion removed from center and save for filling.
Grease a baking dish (7 or 8 inches by 10 or 11 inches) or a round casserole dish (8 or 9 inches in diameter) with 1 tsp. oil. Put onions in dish, cut side up. Brush tops with 1 Tbs. oil. Sprinkle tops with ½ tsp. spice mix and ¼ tsp. salt. Bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Let cool. Remove onions with spatula to plate. (Do not wash baking dish.) Brush any liquid in cavities across cut surfaces.
Pour tomato sauce into your baking dish. Stir in 1 tsp. spice mix, sugar, ¼ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. paprika and lemon juice. Set aside.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Measure ½ cup reserved onion (save extra for another use). Place in bowl with drained rice, garlic, cilantro or parsley, ¼ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. paprika and 1 tsp. spice mix. Stir. Add tomato paste and egg. Mix well. Add beef. Blend with hands until combined.
Take a quarter of the filling and firmly fill cavity of one onion half, mounding remainder over the entire top, pressing firmly. Repeat. Place in sauce, filling side up. Spoon sauce over tops, covering completely. Cover loosely with foil; bake 60 minutes, stirring sauce and spooning it on top of filling every 20 minutes. Remove foil. Bake uncovered 20 minutes. Meat should be firm, sauce thickened and rice inside filling cooked through (some exposed rice may be slightly crisp). Serve hot, warm or at room temperature with sauce spooned over top.
Libyan-inspired spice mix: Combine ½ tsp. ground black pepper, ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, ½ tsp. ground nutmeg, ½ tsp. ground turmeric, ½ tsp. ground cardamom, ¼ tsp. ground cumin and ⅛ tsp. ground cloves. Store extra airtight. Use to season meat, fish, vegetables and sauces.
To make in advance: Refrigerate roasted onions overnight in a covered baking dish. Bring to room temperature before proceeding. The entire recipe can be made and refrigerated up to 2 to 3 days in advance. Cover with foil and reheat in 350-degree oven.
Notes: This recipe is best with 3-inch diameter onions (or larger). Use 2 jumbo onions, also known as extra-large or colossal (about 14 to 16 oz. each). If using large onions (8 to 12 oz. each), use 3 or 4 of the largest ones available. Proportion filling accordingly.