Caramelized onions are simply wonderful. There is a reason that French onion soup is so popular, and it isn’t the cheese melted over the top…although that probably doesn’t hurt. This dish combines two things I really like, caramelized onions and dates, with a sweet and almost desert-like spice scheme. The result is a side dish that would be a great match for most roast chicken dishes, probably would work well with lamb, and presents a really special flavor profile that lands just this side of being too sweet (at least to me).
This side of onions ended up being served with a Tagine of Clams with Olives and Chilies, which I have yet to write up, Zucchini and Artichoke Hearts with Charmoula, and steamed couscous. In putting together a meal that includes this side, keep in mind that it is both aggressively spiced (not hot) and quite sweet. In the meal, it is used more like a relish or adjunct for the couscous or rice. It really needs some type of buffer to separate its intense flavor from the rest of the meal; some form of pilaf would be great as well.
This dish is also a really good way to get started in cooking with a tagine. Tagines are clay cooking devices that hail from Morocco. The are used over open flame and fall somewhere between a steam roaster and a crock pot. Tagines seem to have the uncanny ability to prolong cooking times while not drying ingredients out. Meats turn out succulent and well flavored and, in this case, vegetables absorb every ounce of spice that you add. This is also a very lazy way to cook. Once the tagine goes on the stove, it is basically on autopilot. Even though the cooking times are long, there is very little effort involved.
We cooked this one in a medium tagine that we purchased from Treasures of Morocco. It was the first tagine that we purchased and is really economical. It is, however, a bit small and shallow for main dishes of meat. It is, however, perfect for legume curries and vegetable dishes like this. Amazon distributes for Treasures of Morocco, which is convenient; Cooking Tagine Medium By Treasures of Morocco. We use ours on the side burner of our barbecue or on a portable butane burner, since we do not have a gas range.
To make the dish, simply slice the onions quite thin, and then marinade them in the spice and oil mixture. You will want to let them sit for an hour or two. A couple of hours before you want to eat, place as many of the onions in your tagine as will fit and bring it to heat over a medium flame. Once it is simmering, reduce the heat and let it cook for between an hour and 1-1/2 hours. If all of your onions didn’t fit at first, add them as the onions in the tagine reduce. The final touch is to add whole (pitted) dates about 15 minutes before the onions are done. You will know the time is right because you will notice that the onions are starting to rapidly darken.
You can, of course, make this in the oven using an ovenproof dish covered with aluminium foil. It is probably a bit more effort, since you lose the moisture-regulating feature of the tagine. You will need to, at some point, remove the foil and allow continued cooking to remove some of the moisture. The dates should be added at about the time the foil is removed. Either method of cooking will produce a fantastic result…and your house is going to smell absolutely wonderful!
- 2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
- 4 Tbs. Olive oil
- 1 tsp. cinnamon, ground
- ¼ tsp ginger, ground
- 1 to 2 tsp. black pepper, crushed
- pinch saffron
- 1 Tbs. sugar
- 1 cup whole, pitted dates
- Combine sliced onions, oil, and spices. Toss to coat onions with oi and spice mixture. Set aside to marinade for 1 to 2 hours.
- If using tagine, place onion mixture in tagine and bring to heat over medium flame. When simmering, reduce heat to low and cook between 1 and 1½ hours or until onions are deeply caramelized. Add dates during final ½ hour to 15 minutes of cooking.
- If cooking in oven, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place onions in ovenproof dish and cover with aluminium foil. Place in oven and cook for about 45 minutes prior to checking. If onions are softened and caramelized, remove foil, add dates, and continue cooking in order to thicken mixture.
- Serve baking dish or tagine directly at table.