Greek Stuffed Bell Peppers ~~ Mediterranean Flavors
Peppers and Tomatoes in the Garden
If you are like me, you are getting ready to or have just put your tomato and pepper plants in the ground …or you have a friend or family member who excels at growing green things. Whatever your situation, we are all looking forward to the goodness and bright flavors of garden and family farm grown vegetables.
Three of my favorites are tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and this recipe capitalizes on all three. If you are not a gardener and don't have generous gardening friends, you can always find extremely fresh and flavorful produce from a local Farmer’s market or nearby family farm.
Tomato-Pepper-Onion Trounces the Louisiana Triad
There are so many wonderful dishes that call for these three ingredients. I know in Louisiana the much celebrated and revered triad is celery, onions, and bell pepper, but they are sadly mistaken. Far superior in taste and extremely versatile is the TPO trio – tomatoes, peppers, and onion. Think Spaghetti, Fish Tacos, Chicken Cacciatore, Lasagna, Minestrone, Paella, Salsa, Black Bean Salad, Fresh Tomato Soup, Mexican Tortilla Pizza, Meat Loaf, and the All American Favorite – Chili.
Bell Peppers? Yes, if you haven’t been throwing chopped bell peppers (any color will do – red and yellow are milder, sweeter) into almost everything you cook, you have been missing a great opportunity to get more veggies (think nutrients and vitamins) into your children or husband or wife or significant other without any serious resistance --- just chop finely and sauté till well cooked, then add to almost any dish.
Living on the Edge of the Aegean Sea
So my father was in the Air Force and our family had the great good fortune of being stationed at Athenai Air Base about twenty miles outside of Athens Greece for three years. There was no base housing and we lived in a Greek neighborhood and did much of our shopping in the Greek economy, especially the weekly outdoor market.
We lived in Glyfada, a small outlying suburb of Athens and six blocks from our house, just down the street, Greek farmers and vendors set up their stalls every Wednesday. The open air market, which was filled with the freshest vegetables and seafood, and the best citrus we had ever eaten, took up a block. Another six block walk and we were standing on the rocky shore of the Aegean Sea gazing at the blue-green waters and the smoky purple islands just visible on the horizon.
Cooking and Taste Influences
My mother was a "Southern by birth -- Polish by marriage" cook, but she had always had a penchant for vegetables. Living in Greece supported her adventures with vegetables and cooking and soon she was a "Southern -- Polish -- Greek" cook. It was in Glyfada that she learned to make Greek Stuffed Vegetables from our neighbors.
I know you may not have known any better, so my mother and I gladly forgive you, but please, no more of those sad stuffed peppers where the recipe calls for pouring tomato sauce, or worse yet, tomato soup over the peppers.… I promise, there is something so much better. Try it and you will never go back. :) You may also come to view eggplant in a whole new light. Many people who are convinced they do not like eggplant, come to love the flavor it adds to many dishes when combined with other strong flavored ingredients.
Here is what you need - Ingredients.
-- 3 large bell peppers (you may prefer red or yellow peppers which are sweeter, but a green pepper sweetens as it cooks)
-- 3 ripe tomatoes, chopped (best from garden, Farmer’s Market)
-- 2 - 3 medium yellow onions, chopped
-- 1 medium eggplant, yes eggplant – you won’t be sorry
-- 2 - 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
-- 1 to 1 ½ lbs. lean ground beef
-- 1 - 2 cups cooked white (brown rice if used, will produce a sweeter, nuttier flavor)
-- 1 ½ - 2 tsp salt (I prefer sea salt , but use what you normally use)
-- 1 - 1 ½ tsp black pepper
-- 1 – 1 ½ tsp dried oregano flakes
-- 1 - 1 ½ tsp dried basil leaves
-- ½ - 1 tsp cumin
-- ½ - 1 tsp cayenne pepper
-- 2 tbsp olive or canola oil
Here is what you do.
Cook the rice. Chop the onions and start sautéing them over low heat in the 2 tbsp of oil. Cut off both ends of the eggplant and slice it in half length wise. Carefully scoop out the meat, leaving the eggplant shells intact and place them in your baking dish, glass or metal is fine. Finely chop the eggplant and add it to the pan with the onions. Stir frequently and be careful that the eggplant does not burn. Finely chop the garlic cloves and add to the pan when the onions are almost translucent.
In another pan crumble the ground beef and fry until well done. Then add the spices listed above. (Start with the smaller amounts and later, after adding the rest of the ingredients and tasting, consider whether to increase the salt and spices.) When done combine the contents of the two pans in a large bowl. Dice the tomatoes - they can be peeled if you like, but that isn’t necessary. Add the tomatoes and cooked rice to the beef mixture – making sure that the ingredients are well combined.
Baking and serving suggestions.
Set your oven at 350 degrees, 325 if it runs hot. Carefully slice a thin layer off the top of the bell peppers, then cut in half, seed them, and place in baking dish with the eggplant. Taste the beef mixture and adjust salt and spices as needed. Carefully mound the mixture into the eight vegetable halves in the baking dish. Add ½ inch water to the bottom of the baking dish. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake 45 to 60 minutes.
If you want firm, partially cooked peppers, remove the tin foil at 30 minutes and test for done-ness by pricking with a fork (add a small amount of water if baking dish is almost dry). However, I recommend tender, “falling-a-part peppers” for the incredible flavor that develops with longer cooking. So I remove the foil at 40 minutes, pierce the peppers with a fork and usually cook them for another 10-20 minutes. If you stuff yellow or red peppers, they will become tender more quickly so keep an eye on them.
You will need a large slotted spoon to remove them from the pan to a serving dish. Serve with whatever you like, but I can recommend sautéed zucchini and mushrooms, frozen or fresh spinach with a little lemon and Parmesan, a marinated Black Bean Salad, or a Caesar Salad. And of course, don’t forget a loaf of good crusty bread. This is a great company meal, but it is also a delicious any day of the week family meal. This will serve 4-8 depending on how hungry your family is and can be easily doubled for a crowd. Enjoy!