It’s the end of the month and time for our next Ethnic Exploration. This time around, we were at a loss to what region of the world we wanted to tour. It’s a big world out there. We just didn’t know where to go next. I randomly suggested doing something Middle Eastern again, and that seemed to peak Chrystal’s interests somewhat. Then both of us remembered a mutual friend of our’s raved about Afghan cuisine, and a few months ago, Chrystal met two guys who swore up and down that Afghan food was at the top of the list of their favorite Middle Eastern cuisines. Admittedly, we are ignorant to specific dishes that fall into the category, but with such emphatic response from others, we knew this would be something interesting to try. We were well on our way to the Middle East.
Logistically, it made sense for us to cook the meal at my place in Long Beach due to an appointment we scheduled for the same day near the LB beach. Unfortunately the main, and highly regarded, Middle Eastern market in Long Beach recently shut down. We consulted our usual online sources and discovered a site called the Afghan Cooking Channel. This served as our main resource and guide into this unknown cuisine. All the recipes we decided to test had short ingredient lists and utilized many items already in both of our kitchens.
The first stand out recipe was osh pyozee. Literally translated, it means “stuffed onions.” One thing we learned from our research is many Afghans consider onions important for maintaining strong teeth. Of course, we’ve eaten onions in a variety of dishes and cooked them in a variety of ways, but we can say we never had one stuffed. It sounded savory and unique, so we were up to try it. The ingredients were simple and straight forward. Stuffed with rice, beef, prunes, and a mix of spices commonly found in any grocery store, osh pyozee is generally eaten warm with Afghan style naan, a flatbread most folks have munched on with Indian food.
The recipes we found for osh pyozee called for ground cumin. Sadly, the cumin that I thought was in my cupboard was in fact not there. It was too late for a store run by the time we noticed, so we grabbed the jar of cinnamon instead. According to the recipe, the onions are quickly boiled, then each layer is peeled away, one by one. Generally, osh pyozee is cooked on a stove top at a very low temperature for hours. The stuffed onions become quite dark and soft as they begin to caramelize over a flame. The recipe did note that a shorter cooking time could be achieved by turning up the heat and adding liquid to the pot or roasting the onions in the oven for the same amount of time at about 250 degrees. The clock ticked away, and we were in a time crunch. We made the choice to go go with the shorter cooking time. To be honest, we were perplexed at how the onions could cook for hours and not burn, even on low heat. The addition of liquid seemed like the natural thing to do in our minds.
We wanted to eat the onions with something other than naan, which goes against the Afghan tradition, we know. We found a recipe for a spicy eggplant salad that would do the trick. The eggplant is sliced and cooked on the stove top, then marinated in a mixture of tomatoes, fresh mint, and cinnamon. To tie everything together, we also made a simple coriander chutney. If you remember our last chutney post, then you may recall mention of pestos that can be based around herbs. This one fit the bill. Pureed coriander leaves and stems, also known as cilantro here in the States, nuts, spices and plenty of lemon create a paste similar to pesto. The recipe suggested walnuts, but we decided to go with pine nuts, which were readily at hand.
Perhaps our small substitutions diluted the authenticity of these traditional dishes, but one thing is for sure–the final product was superb! There were two lucky lunch guests that day, and they went back for seconds. We all did! The cinnamon and mint on the eggplant was an awesome combination of flavor. In fact, a tiny bit of each element eaten together in one forkful contained a playful mix of savory, sweet and spice that resonated well on the tongue. The onions were rich and sweet, with the chutney adding in a zap of brightness to the whole mix. We are not ashamed to admit there just may have been a third helping on one or two plates, but we won’t say who. At the end of the meal, there were no leftovers.
As we ate our early dinner, there were definitely thoughts of larger worldly issues in our heads. Afghanistan remains a very tumultuous place. No matter how you feel about the war, there are countless people over there are fighting to persevere as much of the Afghan culture and independence as possible. My younger brother just returned from serving two tours in Afghanistan, Chrystal’s cousin completed a tour there as well. My dad also recently completed a tour in Iraq. Chrystal and I both know many others directly affected by what’s happening abroad, as I’m sure you do as well. We’re grateful for their service. Food is one of the few things that brings us together. If only a hot, filling plate could solve all of our problems. Regardless, the healing power and beauty of a good meal and the culture behind it are never things to forget. In that spirit, we just wanted to take a moment to honor those who are fighting overseas.
Osh Pyozee (Stuffed Onions) – Serves 4 (Adapted from Afghan Cooking Channel)
2 large white onions, peeled
4-5 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup long grain rice, raw
Black pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
10 pitted prunes, quartered
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, rough chopped
1/2 cup broth, optional*
1. Bring water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil in a large pot. With a knife, create an 1/2 inch incision on one side of each onion. When water is ready, boil the onions for two minutes. Remove them from the pot and allow them to cool to the touch. Save 1 cup of the water.
2. When cool enough to handle, use your hands to gently peel away each layer of the onion in whole pieces. Set aside layers and the onion centers.
3. As the onions sit, bring one cup of the reserved water to a boil. Pour the raw rice into the water and boil for 6-8 minutes to partially cook the grains. Drain the rice and slide the grains into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
4. While the rice cools, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wide, shallow pan over medium high heat. Cook beef until mostly browned, approximately 6-8 minutes. Slide the meat into the bowl with the rice. Stir in the remaining salt, pepper, cinnamon, prunes, and cilantro. Mix well to combine.
5. Unroll one sheet of the boiled onion layers. Gently place about one heaping tablespoon of the beef and rice stuffing at one end of the onion layer. Roll closed to secure the stuffing inside. Repeat with all of the onions, including the reserved centers.
6. Drizzle the remaining olive oil into a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium low heat. Tightly pack the stuffed onions evenly on the bottom of the pan in a circular formation, stacking them on top of each other to form additional layers as necessary. Cover and cook for two hours, reducing the heat slightly if necessary. The onions will become soft and brown, but will not burn.
*To accelerate cooking time, add the broth about 15 minutes into the cooking time and increase the heat to medium high. Once all the liquid is reduced, the onions will begin to brown and the meal will be done after 60-75 minutes. Be careful not to let the onions burn.
Bonjan Salat (Spicy Eggplant Salad)- Serves 4 (adapted from Afghan Cooking Channel)
2 medium eggplants, sliced 1/2″ thick
2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, divided
1/4 cup olive oil
4 medium roma tomatoes, diced or 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
Black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, rough chopped
1. Spread eggplant slices over a baking sheet and sprinkle evenly with 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Let sit for 15 minutes, then place slices in a strainer and rinse well under cool water. (This removes any bitterness.) Place between sheets of paper towels and press dry. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a large, shallow pan over medium high heat. Fry eggplant slices until browned on each side, about 4 minutes on both sides. Place cooked slices in a mixing bowl or small serving dish.
3. In the same pan, add remaining ingredients including 1/2 tablespoon of salt, stir well, and simmer over medium low heat for 10 minutes. (If using fresh tomatoes, mash mixture half through cooking time to break up the pieces and release the juices to form a sauce.)
4. Pour tomato mixture over the eggplant and gently stir to evenly coat all the pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cool or at room temperature.
Chatni Gashneez (Coriander Chutney) – Yields about 1/2 a cup (adapted from Afghan Cooking Channel)
1 cup cilantro leaves and stems
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
Juice of 1 1/2 lemons, plus more as necessary
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients into a food processor. Pulse until mixture forms a paste. Add more lemon juice if needed to help bind the mixture. Season with salt.
Click HERE for printable recipes.