I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic lately, which isn’t terribly surprising considering the fact that I am usually found in a state of past-reflection. That’s not to say that I can’t focus on the present as well as others. I can, especially since paying close attention to the here-and-now comes in handy when, well, the here-and-now eventually becomes the there-and-then.
A short while ago, I made a comment to friends that my mother didn’t really cook. What I meant was that, unlike the fantasy version of my mother I wish I had had (culinarily-speaking), my real-life mom was never seen floating about the kitchen baking pies or putting up strawberry preserves from fruit picked ripe from our garden. We did, in fact, have strawberries growing in our back yard but, in the heat of summer, it was generally a race to see who could get to them first– us or the garden snails. Besides, one was never certain if one of the dogs hadn’t peed on them.
The truth is that my mother did cook. And she did it rather well, I think. It sounds noble of me, I know, but I have forgiven her lack of enthusiasm for daily meal preparation. The fact that she, as a single mother, managed to feed two sullen teenagers and a hyperactive pre-adolescent without relying heavily on fast food take-out while working 40 hours a week now strikes me as utterly amazing.
Often, she was time efficient– making large batches of food stuffs that froze well. She’d make a gallon of pasta sauce and meatballs and freeze them in empty plastic containers that once housed whipped topping or Country Crock margarine. Though the former contents may not have been especially noteworthy, her red sauce and meatballs were as good as my Sicilian paternal grandmothers– apparently, learning to make them was a pre-condition to marrying my father. Not bad for a white girl.
The traumatizing effects of stew night aside (I would sometimes cry when I saw it simmering on the stove top, spend dinner time loading mouthfuls of it into my heavily-napkined lap and request to make repeated trips to the garbage can), dinners were generally tasty affairs. One of my favorite non-special occasion meals she’d prepare was stuffed bell peppers.
It struck me as odd that I would remember this dish as one of my favorites, considering the fact that the peppers in question were invariably green as they pretty much all were thirty-odd years ago. I still don’t much care for them. What I loved about them was the fact that the pepper (which I ignored) was simply a bit of negative space waiting to be filled by what was basically my mother’s meatballs, but with a little rice mixed in to make it stuffed-peppery.
I’d never made stuffed peppers before, but I decided to give it a go this week. What I find appealing about stuffed peppers is that, basically, one can stuff them with whatever you want. As long as it’s edible, I mean. I take that back. Stuff them with whatever the hell you feel like stuffing them with. I would hate to be accused of stifling anyone’s creativity.
Mexicans have probably been stuffing peppers ever since they began cultivating them some 6,000 years ago. When they were brought to Europe from the New World, the Italians, Greeks, Hungarians and Spanish took a liking to them. When they made their way back to the Americas (yes, they were here the whole time, I know), Southerners took to stuffing them, too. Meat, rice, bulgar wheat, cheese– you name it– has made it’s way into the sweet pepper with more or less successful results.
I chose a somewhat Greek approach to stuffing a pepper. Perhaps stating that I used typically Greek ingredients, for the most part, might avoid unnecessary giggling. I just thought my particular attack was tasty. Remember, there is no right and there is no wrong. At least, not that I am willing to get into this morning.
4 red bell peppers (or whatever color most pleases you and your budget)
1 pound ground lamb
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 zucchini, diced fairly small
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup cooked white rice, cooled
1 teaspoon salt
a rather large amount of black pepper
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon gound allspice
1 large egg
1/4 cup feta or goat cheese
- Pre-heat oven to 375 F.
- Saute (or sweat, in this case) onion and garlic in one tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Set aside. Turn up the heat and add the second tablespoon of oil and then the ground lamb. Brown, please. Add third tablespoon of oil and then zucchini. Cook until just slightly softened and a tad brighter in color. Toss the onion mixture, lamb and zucchini together.
- I suppose before you’ve taken on steps one and two you could have washed and sliced the tops of the peppers and, if they aren’t behaving as they should and sitting up straight, you might cut their bottoms and forcibly make them do so. Free them of their seeds and ribbing. I choose to blanch the peppers as well, which cuts down on oven time.
- Add salt, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, egg, cheese and rice to the stuffing mixture, combining well.
- Fill the empty inner spaces of the peppers with the stuffing and place in a casserole or dutch oven– something not too shallow. Peppers are fairly social creatures, so keep them close together, but do allow them some space– they need to feel the hot oven air circulate around them. Oh, and add some water or stock to the bottom of the dish to prevent the peppers from burning. At this point, I rub the tops of the peppers with olive oil and salt and place them in a pan to roast along side the peppers themselves. Not necessary, but I don’t see why not.
- When the peppers are sufficiently roasted (like, in about 30 minutes), dot the top of the stuffed peppers with more cheese and place under the broiler to brown.
- Serve hot.
My mother, and lots of other people besides her, serve peppers with some sort of tomato sauce. I decided to accompany mine with something a little lighter and sharper. It’s almost completely mindless…
Garlic and Mint Yogurt Sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt (Greek is good, but I think too thick for this. Save it for eating with honey)
4 cloves garlic, minced
several leaves of mint, chiffonaded
a pinch pr two of salt
Mix all the above ingredients in a bowl and whisk together. Serve. Or, better to let this sit in the fridge overnight so the flavors can get to know each other better. I hope you took notes on that one.