Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers is one of my favorite dishes and one of the most flavorful and visually striking recipes home cooking can provide. Taken to a near art-form by my wife Julia, who religiously produces a dish consisting of almost identical, perfectly shaped vegetables with expertly seasoned delicate filling, this recipe has many versions and spans a number of cuisines.

So here's a bit of a back story. Stuffed peppers are common for Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern European cuisines. Serbians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Romanians all have them. The dish has even infiltrated parts of Russian cuisine. Of course the taste and method of preparation will vary depending on a region. In some recipes, for instance, sour cream or heavy cream is added to the sauce, while others use only pork or only beef instead of a mixture. One thing remains consistent, however - to make a dish you need bell peppers, a mixture of meat and rice and plenty of carrots, tomatoes and onions. Oh yes, and a huge pot or a casserole dish.

In general, the dish is fairly easy to prepare. The intricacy is in coming up with the right proportion of meat to rice - too much meat and you will have a much denser, less delicate filling. The recipe I am providing here is Julia's, but you would have to come up with your own magical touch, since it is that ephemeral ingredient that makes a dish truly great.

Here's what you will need:
1. 5-7 Medium size bell peppers.
When choosing pepper, pay close attention to its shape and feel. Peppers should feel heavy in your hand. It is an indication of thickness of the flesh and will guarantee the best flavor. Try to go for the perfectly shaped vegetables - not too crooked, too long or too shallow. Red peppers have a wonderful, intense flavor. Green peppers tend to be a bit tougher and add earthy tones to the dish. Yellow peppers bring color and brightness to the dish and have a much milder flavor. So use a mix.
2. 1.5 large carrot
3. 3 medium onions
4. 1 cup of cilantro
5. 4 medium tomatoes, or 5-6 plum tomatoes.
You can also use peeled whole tomatoes out of a can. Canned Neapolitan plum tomatoes will work great, just make sure it has no seasoning added to it.
6. 1.5 lb. of ground beef/pork mixture. 50/50 proportion works fine, but don't go for the leanest beef as it tends to be dry. You can also add veal to the mixture.
7. 1/3 - 1/2 a cup of uncooked white rice.
8. Olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano or dry basil for seasoning.

Peel and roughly chop the onions. Peel and grate the carrots using a rough grater. Peel and chop tomatoes. The best way to peel tomatoes is to submerge them in boiling water for about a minute or until the skin pops. Chop cilantro.

Remove stems from the peppers by cutting the tops off to produce an opening large enough to fill the peppers without cracking them. Core and clean them. Place peppers in a large pot filled with boiling water. There should be enough water in the pot to cover the peppers. Bring it back to boil and cook until slightly soft - about 2-3 minutes. They should be able to maintain their shape and stand up when you take them out. Set peppers on a clean plate, careful not to damage them, let them cool. Make sure there is no water left inside the peppers.

Discard most of the water, reserving about 2 cups for cooking rice. In a medium pan rinse rice and add reserved hot water. Par-cook rice, keeping it very al dente. It's OK if rice is still a little wet, as it will add moisture to the filling.

In the large pot heat olive oil, add onions and sauté until slightly soft (about 2 minutes). Remove half of the onions and set aside. Add carrots to the pot and continue to sauté for another 2 minutes. When carrots soften, add crushed tomatoes. Season with some salt and oregano. Taste the sauce to check for acidity. You can always add a pinch of sugar to offset the tartness. Careful not to over cook it. Once combined remove the mixture from the pot and set aside.

Combine beef and pork in a mixing bowl, mix well. Season to taste with salt, pepper and oregano. Add par-cooked rice in about 60/40 ratio of meat to rice. Add cilantro and reserved sauté onions and mix again. Check for seasoning. Using extra care not to damage the peppers with your hand or a small spoon fill peppers with the mixture. If you have some filling remaining, don't worry - you can make excellent meatballs.

Return the large pot to heat and add some of the sauteed vegetables enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Place peppers side by side, open end up. If you have made any meatballs, now is the time to add them as well. Using a spoon, pour vegetable sauce over the peppers, filling spaces between and placing tomato chunks on top of the openings. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Cover and simmer until done - for about 60-90 minutes.

Turn off the heat and let it rest covered to cool.