Studying the cuisines of many different countries also leads to the discovery of similarities or overarching themes that cross our cultures. For example, I have seen a recipe for stuffed peppers in almost every cuisine that I know. Since the fillings are so different, the dishes must have evolved independently, or at least have been well-customized to local ingredients and palates all over the world. Peppers have the perfect hollow insides and are already sized for individual servings, so it’s not hard to believe that many people over the years shared the brilliant idea of stuffing them with something. From the chile rellenos of Mexico, to Indian-spiced potato stuffed peppers, to Cuban peppers stuffed with picadillo, to seafood stuffed peppers of Southeast Asia (see below), every culture puts their own twist on it – and it’s all very, very good!
If I remember correctly, I think my grandmother stuffed raw pepper shells with some kind of cold (not baked) bread stuffing with cheese and maybe water chestnuts – I don’t even remember if it included meat. I’m making a note to ask if she remembers the recipe the next time I visit with her. Other stuffed peppers of my childhood in rural Virginia were filled with rice and tomato sauce, and sometimes ground beef.
Rice, tomato and meat seems to a popular combination in Europe and the Middle East, like this Iranian stuffed pepper shown below. The Persian flavors are of course reflective of that region, with the filling being pretty similar to what you might see in a stuffed grape leaf.
Iranian Stuffed Peppers (or Eggplant)
Prepare vegetables to stuff: Peppers should be cut in half, seeded and blanched for about 5 minutes in boiling water, then rinsed in cold water and drained well. Eggplant should be cut in half, shaved slightly in order to stand upright, then flesh removed to leave about ¾-inch shells. Peel and drain with salt for about 20 minutes. Then rinse, pat dry, and brown on all the outer sides in a skillet with oil.
Make Stuffing: This makes enough to stuff 2 peppers (4 halves), 2 eggplants, or one of each. Boil 2 Tbsp. Basmati rice with 2 Tbsp. yellow split peas in lightly salted water, and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain well. Brown ½ sliced onion, 1 clove garlic, and ½ lb. ground beef in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add 1 Tbsp. tomato paste and ½ tsp. ground cumin, stir to mix well and then remove from heat. Add the rice mixture to the meat, along with ½ c. chopped parsley, ¼ c. chopped chives, ½ Tbsp. each dried mint and dried tarragon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Make sauce: Mix together ½ c. tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes, 1 Tbsp. lime juice, ¼ c. sugar, ½ tsp. cinnamon, and a pinch of saffron dissolved in hot water.
Assembly: Fill the eggplant and/or pepper halves with stuffing and place them in a casserole dish. Pour the tomato sauce around the vegetables in the pan. Cover and bake at 400 degrees for about 1 hour, or until the vegetables are tender and flavorful. Adjust the sauce flavoring after baking, if necessary, and use it as a topping for the stuffed vegetables.
The other stuffed pepper recipe I made this month was Vietnamese, and probably originally Chinese (?) based on some of the different recipes I perused. The pepper is stuffed with shrimp and pork and flavored with fish sauce, garlic and sesame. Since it doesn’t have a starch filler like many other stuffed peppers (bread, rice or potatoes usually), I enjoyed this dish with rice on the side. I followed this recipe from a Vietnamese food blogger, and it worked pretty well.
So as summer comes around and you have access to fresh bell peppers, I recommend stuffing them with something – maybe an easy tuna or chicken salad, or one of the options listed above. Regardless of the filling, it’s a fun way to add some veggies into your life!