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Dive into Southwestern carmelized onions

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Chef Stephan Pyles is a fifth-generation Texan, a self-described card-carrying carnivore, whose latest publication is a vegetarian cookbook.

All is explained in the introduction to "Southwestern Vegetarian" (Clarkson Potter, $30 hardcover). In spite of Tex-Mex cuisine's heavy use of pork and beef, Pyles says, there was an earlier Southwestern tradition that was primarily vegetarian.

Now Texas tastes are changing again, he says, and Texans are increasingly enjoying their abundance of vegetables and fruit.

Personally, he says, he has always appreciated vegetables' contribution to dishes he cooks, and the book is about vegetarian cooking in his favorite style, Southwestern.

Pyles, who lives in Dallas, owns three restaurants there, including Star Canyon, and two in Las Vegas. He is known for previous cookbooks and from TV food shows, and in 1991, he was the first winner of the James Beard Foundation's best chef in America award.

The following onion recipe is among some 200 featured in his new book.


CARAMELIZED ONIONS STUFFED WITH SWEET POTATO WHITE-BEAN RAGOUT

6 large sweet onions, about 3 inches in diameter, unpeeled

1 sweet potato (about 12 ounces), peeled and finely diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 jalapeo chili, seeded and minced

1/2 cup white wine (optional substitute: white grape juice)

1/2 cup cooked white beans (see note)

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced

1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Place the sweet onions in a roasting pan and roast in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and let sit until the onions are cool enough to handle. Peel the onions and cut about 1 inch off the tops and enough from the bottoms that the onions will sit upright. Using a paring knife, extract the flesh from the center of the onion, leaving the edges about 3/8 inch thick. (Save the flesh to make stock or soup.)

Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil and blanch the sweet potato for 1 minute. Drain and set aside.

Preheat the broiler. In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil until lightly smoking. Add the diced yellow onion and sauté over high heat for 3 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1 minute longer. Add the wine or optional white grape juice and deglaze the pan. Reduce the liquid for 2 minutes, or until the mixture is almost dry. Add the blanched sweet potato, beans, peppers, pumpkin seeds, marjoram, parsley and thyme, and heat through. Add the bread crumbs and cheese, stir to combine, and season with salt.

Stuff the onions with this mixture, place under the broiler, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the top of the stuffing turns brown. The onions can be prepared 1 day ahead but should be warmed for 10 minutes in a 350 F oven before broiling. Makes 6 servings.

Note: White beans are also called navy beans. Pyles' recipe for cooking them:

1/2 cup dried white beans, soaked overnight and drained

6 cups vegetable stock or water

Salt to taste

Rinse the beans and place in a saucepan. Add the vegetable stock or water and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Makes about 1 cup.