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Persian Beef-and-Split-Pea Stew

['4 medium onions, chopped (about 4 cups)', '3 tablespoons vegetable oil', '1 pound boneless beef chuck, cut into 3/4-inch cubes', '1/2 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads', '1/4 teaspoon turmeric', '4 cups water', '1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes', '1/2 cup dried yellow split peas, picked over and rinsed', '1/4 cup tomato paste (preferably Turkish)', '2 dried Omani lemons (optional), pierced in several places with a small sharp knife', '1 teaspoon ground cinnamon', '1/4 teaspoon ground allspice', '2 to 3 tablespoons fresh Key lime or lemon juice', 'Accompaniments: cooked basmati rice; radishes; fresh mint and basil leaves']

Cook onions in oil in a 4-quart heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
Pat meat dry and toss with 1 teaspoon salt. Increase heat to high, then add meat, saffron, and turmeric to onions and cook, stirring frequently, until meat is no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Stir in water and tomatoes, then simmer, covered, 1 hour.
Stir in split peas, tomato paste, Omani lemons (if using), cinnamon, allspice, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until meat is very tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours more. Discard Omani lemons and stir in salt and Key lime juice to taste.

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