You’re going to cook the onions in the oven while the pilaf is cooking on the stove (or rice cooker), so don’t just stick the onions in the oven and leave the kitchen! This recipe requires a little bit of effort, but it’s worth it.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil (you’ll be glad you did this when it’s clean-up time).
Peel the onions and trim the bottoms so that they stand upright. Cut about 1/2 inch off the tops and set the trimmed parts aside. Put the onions on the baking sheet and give them a very quick spray of olive oil (this helps keep them from burning but isn’t essential). Sprinkle with a little salt (if using) and grind a little black pepper over them.
Bake them until tender and slightly caramelized around the edges, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Leave the oven on, reducing the heat to 350 F.
While the onions are baking, prepare the pilaf. Chop whatever is usable of the onion tops into small pieces. Heat a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting top. Add the onions and sauté until tender. Add the rice and tomato paste and cook, stirring, for one minute more.
Add the 2 1/2, spices, lentils, and salt and stir to combine well. Cover, turn the heat to low (or set rice cooker to cook), and cook for 30 minutes. Remove pan from heat.
When the onions are cool enough to handle, remove their centers by pushing up from the bottom; be sure to leave a shell at least 2 or 3 layers thick. Cut off a bit of the onion center and return it to the onion to seal the bottom. Place the onions in a large, covered baking dish that has been lightly oiled or lined with parchment.
Chop the onion centers and add them, the raisins, and the pine nuts to the rice mixture. Check the rice–it should still have some water in it. If if doesn’t, add 1/4 cup water. Spoon the rice mixture into the onions, pressing to pack it in and mounding it slightly over the top. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of water over the top of each onion, and put 2 tablespoons of water into the bottom of the baking dish. Cover tightly, and put in the oven. (If you have any rice mixture left over, put it in another covered baking dish and bake it along with the onions.)
Check after 20 minutes to see if the rice is tender and not too dry; if it isn’t completely cooked, return it to the oven for 5-10 minutes, adding a little hot water if it is too dry.
If you’d like to make the pilaf alone, skip steps 1-3, sauté 1/2 cup of chopped onions at the beginning of step 4, and follow the basic directions, putting it into an oiled casserole dish for baking.Nutritional data includes pine nuts.