Egg yolk singed with a glowing lump of charcoal. Homemade almond tahini. Grilled cabbage with chile garlic butter.
Paging through Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich's latest cookbook, "Chasing Smoke," there were plenty of moments that made me pause, admire, and add yet another bookmark.
But this is the one — a burst of ombré purple, like a proud dahlia upturned to face the sun — that I just couldn't move past.
Beyond its alien beauty, there was also the delight of roasting walnuts in a skillet right on the grill. Of fresh sage not fried crisp or stewed into beans, but left furry and fresh to underpin a simple, earthy dressing. Of eating with your hands, not unlike scooping up a nacho. Of charring onions unrecognizable, then pulling flower petals from their ashes.
And all of it started from the scent that accompanied Sarit and Itamar through Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel (and beyond) in 2018 and 2019 as they put together their newest cookbook, "Chasing Smoke": the sweet-savory smoke of a halved onion, hissing and charring, as cooks used it to clean the grates of a hot grill. "In lots of places in the Middle East, pretty much everywhere we traveled, people use half an onion to clean their grill. And so the first thing you smell," Itamar told me in the video you see above, "will be that charred onion, and it's a very mouthwatering smell."
They also knew about onion's greater potential, from the tinier ones nestled onto kebabs, "And then there will always be an onion on a skewer on your grill," Itamar continued. "It's often the tastiest bit."
So why treat that onion, effective as it might be, as only a cleaning supply, when it had so much goodness still inside? Sarit and Itamar opted to leave the onion on the grill to blacken thoroughly — but only on the surface.
As the onion becomes near-fossilized on the outside, smoke and steam shoot up through its inner layers, mellowing and sweetening them without causing them to lose their structure. Unfurled, only a thin rim of visible char is left behind, and the onion petals cup dressings admirably without tasting raw. Here, the dressing is an earthy-bright scoop of sage, honey, and walnuts, but it could just as well be baba ghanoush (Sarit's suggestion) or blue cheese sauce (Itamar's idea).
In a season of more outdoor gathering, I see this as the ideal side dish: unfussy (the advance prep is: cut an onion in half; don't peel!); communal; memorable.
Please note: On October 20, 2021, there was a CDC food safety alert on onions distributed from Chihuahua, Mexico, on August 27, 2021 — please double-check the origins of any onions you source for this recipe (and compost any old ones in your pantry that are suspect). For more information, head here.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6 to 8 as a starter or side salad
For the salad:
- 4 large red onions, skin on
- Olive oil, for brushing
- Flaky sea salt, to finish
For the dressing:
- 80 grams (2 3/4 ounces) walnuts (about 2/3 cup)
- 10 sage leaves, rolled up and cut into really thin strips
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 1 teaspoon mild chile flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- A little freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- A few sprigs of mint, leaves picked (about 15 grams, or 1/2 ounce)
- Halve the red onions through the core, keeping the skin on. Brush the cut faces with oil and place cut side down on a hot grill. Grill for about 12 minutes, until the cut surface is black and charred, then flip to skin side down and let cook for 5 minutes more. You should be able to insert a dinner knife, but with a little resistance — you want them slightly softened, but still with a little crunch. Remove to a plate to chill until they are cool enough to handle.
- Make the dressing while you wait. Roast the walnuts over the fire for about 8 minutes in an old sieve or dry frying pan, stirring occasionally. Slightly crush them and mix with all the other dressing ingredients apart from the mint leaves.
- Break the cooled onion halves into petals, discarding the outer skins. Set the petals with their charred rims upwards on a large serving plate. Just before serving, thinly shred the mint leaves and mix into the dressing. Drizzle all over the onion petals and sprinkle with a little sea salt to finish.
- To cook without a grill: Use a lightly oiled, heated griddle pan on your stove top and cook just as you would on the fire, but beware, your house will get pretty smoky.