The cliché is that the secret ingredient of good food is love. For us, there is one essential ingredient that takes food to epicurean heights: the humble onion. Sautéed, caramelized or even raw, the addition of onions uniquely enhances the flavor of any dish.
Every roast, every chicken, every stew, every soup starts with onion. It’s engraved in stone for a Sephardic cook.
Onions have made appearances throughout history. The tale is told in traces of onion found in the Bronze Age settlements of China as well as the Sumerian text about the hapless man who plowed over the city governor’s onion patch. In ancient Egypt, onions were an object of worship that symbolized eternity and were buried with the pharaohs. In the desert, our ancient Israelite ancestors mourned the onions and leeks and garlic that they had eaten so freely in Egypt. In ancient Greece, before competing in the Olympics, the athletes would consume copious amounts of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies. Pliny the Elder wrote about onions growing in the gardens of ancient Rome and about the Roman belief that onions could cure many maladies. Roman gourmet Apicius included many references to onions in one of the first recipe books known to man. In the Middle Ages, onions were prescribed to alleviate headaches, snakebites and hair loss and were currency for rent payments and wedding presents.
Nowadays, the health benefits of this superfood are undisputed. Onions contain high amounts of quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that is thought to prevent inflammation and other chronic diseases. The sulfur in onions facilitates the removal of toxins in our bodies and vitamin C and phytochemicals help to boost our immunity.
Sharon Gomperts: One of the hottest trends in the kosher food world is candied beef “bacon.” Whenever we’d take our girls out for dinner, that’s all they wanted to eat. I get the obsession. The combination of umami meaty flavor and sweet crunch is thoroughly addictive.
I tried to think of a way to replicate this incredibly flavorful taste experience, without using the typically fatty pieces of meat used for this “facon” (fake bacon).
And thus was born my candied pastrami pizza.
I have a penchant for simplicity, so my recipe comes together with easy preparation and the assembly of store-bought ingredients. Caramelizing the onions, baking the pastrami with dark brown sugar and layering everything with a Dijon mustard and mayo dressing on a seeded lavosh bread results in a flavorsome treat.
Rachel Sheff: Corsica is blessed with beguiling blue shores and granite mountains dotted with terra-cotta roofs and emerald green trees. The summer of my 18th year was spent in the blissful setting of this Mediterranean island. My cousin Alia and her husband, Dimitry, were working at the Club Med there and they invited me for what proved to be one of the best summers of my life.
Most famous for being the birthplace of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsica has the most beautiful, most delicious food. Its location southeast of France and west of the Italian peninsula resulted in each country ruling over it at various times, starting with the ancient Romans. Both countries left their imprint on the cuisine with an emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables, olives and olive oil. I tasted the freshest goat cheeses there — and when I say fresh, I mean you could see the goats roaming the rocky cliffs of the resort.
It was there that I discovered pissalediere, a French pizza made with caramelized onions, anchovies and black olives. Traditionally prepared with a thick bread dough, the ones at Club Med were served on puff pastry. Over the years, it has become one of my favorite dishes to prepare because it’s a crowd pleaser and a family favorite. I have to hide it, otherwise it won’t make it to the table. It is so simple and adapts to whatever ingredients you have on hand. Add cheese and arugula to make it brunch worthy. Or you can keep it pareve like the one I made with grilled eggplant, caramelized onions and a light smattering of matbucha to serve as a first course on Friday night.
Get creative and enjoy.
CANDIED PASTRAMI PIZZA
3 tablespoons avocado or almond oil
2 purple onions, diced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound sliced pastrami
4 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Canola spray for greasing
1 package seeded lavosh flatbread
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 300 F.
Heat oil over medium heat.
Add diced onions, fry for 5 minutes, then add sugar. Lower heat and cook for 15-20 minutes until onions are soft and translucent.
Arrange pastrami in slightly overlapping layers on two greased baking sheets. Sprinkle evenly with brown sugar, then drizzle with maple syrup.
Bake 10-15 minutes until crisp.
Dressing: In small bowl, combine mustard, mayonnaise and spices.
Cut lavosh into rectangles.
Spread thin layer of mustard dressing on lavosh.
Top with onions and hot pastrami.
1/4 cup olive oil
3 medium onions, thinly sliced in food processor
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 sheet puff pastry
1 can good quality anchovies (preferably Spanish)
1/2 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved
Capers, for garnish
1 egg yolk, to brush edges of pastry
In large sauté pan, heat olive oil. Add onions, thyme, salt, pepper and whole garlic clove and cook a few minutes.
Cook on low heat 45 minutes until onions are soft, sweet and browned, stirring every 5-10 minutes.
After 20 minutes, remove garlic, finely chop it and return it to pan.
Add balsamic vinegar.
Preheat oven to 450 F.
Roll puff pastry dough into an approximate 10 x 15 inch rectangle. Place pastry on parchment-lined baking sheet and, using fork, pierce holes all over center so pastry doesn’t puff in center.
Bake 8-10 minutes, then remove from oven. If the pastry is puffed in center, gently push it down using a rubber spatula.
Spread cooled caramelized onions into thin layer, leaving half-inch border all around. Arrange anchovies, then olives and then capers. Brush edges with egg yolk. Bake 10-15 minutes until edges are puffed and golden. Can be reheated before serving, but best served straight from oven.
Prepare puff pastry as for onion tart. Spread baked dough with 1/2 cup of favorite matbucha salad, thin layer of caramelized onions, then top with grilled eggplants. Bake 10-15 minutes.
Other toppings can include cheese, sundried tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and roasted fennel.
Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts will answer cooking questions on Instagram at SephardicSpiceGirls or on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes.