Ryan’s Stuffed Peppers

I was in western Mass. this past weekend visiting my ex-girlfriend and a couple very good friends from college. On Friday night, Kristie and I got invited to a small dinner party thrown by my friends Ryan and Caroline at their home. It was a cool evening, so we ate inside. Ryan and Carlo created an amazing spread of spicy Swedish meatballs, homemade tomato sauce, and insalata caprese (complemented by basil from the Mount Holyoke College student garden), to name just a few. Oh yes, and plenty Merlot!

Ryan is one of the most cooking-fluent women I know, and we exchanged our best Julia Child impressions over her now-famous stuffed peppers. I remember asking her where she got the recipe, and she made a reference to some index card or other. I spotted it later in her kitchen while her boyfriend and I were doing dishes (as well as singing a rousing rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which did not go over very well to those in the living room reading Leonard Cohen poetry aloud)—a stained, damp, wrinkled piece of paper covered in notes and exclamation points (“Cook rice—DO THIS FIRST!!!”), the way I imagine all good recipes start.

This is my version of Ryan’s stuffed peppers. The modifications for this dish are endless. Add white rice, tomato sauce, and chili peppers, and you have a Mexican meal perfect for a summer night. Sub squash and carrots for an early autumn plate. It’s also a great alternative to a stir-fry when you have a ton of random vegetables…anything works, really.

A quick note about heirloom tomatoes (this recipe calls for a Hungarian Oval). Heirlooms have been classically bred and passed down (usually via the family garden) for decades to preserve their rich taste rather than their abilities to withstand harsh pesticides or conform to what we think a tomato “should” look like. Many variations get lost in the folds of time. Become a part of the revival! Ask for them at your grocery store, and keep an eye out for them at your local farmers market. Also, check out the Heirloom Tomato Cookbook for some great ideas. (Recipe after the jump).

Buy these (adjust amounts depending on how many you’re serving—1 pepper/person):

– Red, orange, or yellow pepper (look for ones that can stand on their own; if not, you’ll have to cut off the bottoms so that they’ll sit upright in the oven)

– Wild or long grain rice

– Carrots (finely chopped)

– Hungarian Oval tomatoes (chopped; this heirloom tomato packs an intense taste and might be the ugliest tomato I’ve ever seen; if you can’t get your hands on a Hungarian Oval, any organic, local tomatoes will work just fine)

– Zucchini (chopped)

– White onion (chopped)

– Tomato sauce (optional; the flavor from the Hungarian Oval might be enough)

– Garlic (minced, to taste)

– Salt and black pepper (to taste)

– Extra virgin olive oil, butter (for sautéing the veggies prior to stuffing)

Do this: 

1. Cook the rice according to the instructions on the box/bag (as Ryan wrote, “DO THIS FIRST!!!”). If your rice comes with a seasoning packet, add that to your discretion. I only use about half for this recipe

2. I don’t know about you, but I love chopping vegetables (even though I’m not very good—I have the scars to prove it). This is a great opportunity to take your time and get all your veggies ready. Make sure you don’t chop the pepper! There should be an even amount of each, chopped finely.

3. Combine all chopped veggies in a bowl and add salt and black pepper (optional).

4. Now, here comes the fun part (a.k.a. the part it took me the longest for me to figure out how to do). Twist the stem off of the pepper (if applicable). Carefully carve around the base of the stem and remove the top. This might take some gouging; I’m probably not the only one who was reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay on gutting turkeys. Have you ever carved a pumpkin for Halloween? Do that to the pepper. Remove the seeds and, for lack of a better word, innards through the top. Try rinsing out the last couple seeds if they’re stubborn. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the rice.

5. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

6. At this point it’s safe to start sautéing the vegetable mix in a little bit of extra virgin olive oil and butter.

7. When the rice is done, combine it with a little bit of tomato sauce.

8. Once the carrots in the vegetable mix start to wrinkle, you can add that to the rice/tomato sauce and stir.

9. Pour the rice/vegetable mix into the pepper through the top. This might take two utensils. Or two people. Try to fill the pepper as completely as possible.

10. Stick it in the oven (don’t put the top of the pepper back on; I know, I know, it’s tempting) for about twenty or twenty-five minutes.

11. Allow to cool for five or ten minutes before the feast begins! I hope you have a group of wonderful women comparable to mine with whom to enjoy them; they’re best served with Christmas lights in August, tumblers of red wine, and Leonard Cohen in the living room.

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