Meat Stuffed Peppers
This dish should make me sad but it doesn’t. It actually makes me feel oddly happy. OK – maybe happy isn’t the right word; it’s a bit too one-dimensional. The right word, whatever it is, would combine comforted, fortunate, thankful with a bit of wistful. The reason I should be sad is that I first made this dish right after my dad died. But instead of reminding me of the numb despair I felt, it reminds me of three of my favourite things that offered me comfort when I needed it most: my sister, cooking, and the library.
After the funeral, my sister and I not really having a firm return date to our lives elsewhere hung around with our mom and our brother at home taking care of odd jobs and just being together. We cut down a tree for our mom, cornered our brother about drinking too much pop and about other things we knew better than him (sorry Paul), went to T.J. Maxx a lot, and were fitted for bras at Dillard’s and found out we were both wearing the wrong size (happens more than you know!). We went to the library, too. Since I was a kid, the library has been a favourite place of mine. It offers solace, hope and much needed diversion. This time around it offered diversion and solace in the form of cookbooks. I took out a lot of cookbooks and this is when I came across Lidia Bastianich’s Italian-American Kitchen. An Italian cook with a Slavic last name? How could I resist.
Darka, that’s my sister, and I always liked, but not loved, our mom’s stuffed peppers. They weren’t perfect but a dish like that had such potential: savoury meat and rice filling inside a vegetable (good for you!) baked in a bright tomato sauce. Should be a total yum but it wasn’t quite. Lidia had a recipe for stuffed peppers that looked simple and deliciously Italian. I showed Darka Lidia’s recipe with a “do you want to try this?” The reply: “absolutely.” Ingredients were purchased and we set to work in our mom’s kitchen, commiserating and laughing at how much we were fumbling in now unfamiliar territory: where’s the strainer?, where are all the baking pans, and mixing bowls?, and why are these knives so dull!?! It took us so long to get this dish on the table and we were mightily frustrated with all of our delays, but regardless of how much time we wasted trying to locate that strainer and how much we struggled with those dull knives, I had fun and found comfort (both in short supply then) hanging out in the kitchen with my sister.
And how were the peppers? Lidia’s Stuffed Peppers are Potential Realized. The pepper in Lidia’s recipe was a cubanelle, not a green bell pepper that I find unpalatable in texture and taste when cooked. A cubanelle is a slim and long, kind of sweet pepper that keeps its texture when cooked. Lidia stuffs the peppers with a mix of beef, pork and veal for maximum flavour. And her rice? Arborio – a short grain Italian rice that adds a creamy starchiness to the filling. Fresh oregano (smells like summer) and freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano round out the stuffing. This dish is savoury, totally satisfying and, to me, a true comfort food.
Meat Stuffed Peppers
From Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (Knopf, 2001)
By Lidia Bastianch
1/3 cup Arborio rice
8 cubanella peppers, or other long, thin fleshed peppers, each about 6 inches long
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion chopped
8 oz ground meat*
1 large egg
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves chopped
3 cups passata or as needed
*use a mix of at least two different ground meats for better flavour: veal, pork, beef
Cook the Arborio rice in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender but firm, about 12 minutes. Drain and cool to room temperature.
While the rice is cooking, preheat the oven to 400° F.
Next up, prepare the peppers and start the filling. Cut the very top of the peppers and stem off and scrape out the seeds and membranes with a teaspoon. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until softened, about 4 minutes. Scrape the onions into a mixing bowl, add your ground meat, egg, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, oregano and cooked rice. Stir or mix together with your hands until evenly blended.
Divide the filling among the peppers, using about ¼ cup to fill each pepper loosely. Depending on the size of my peppers, I sometimes have a wee bit of filling leftover.
Place the stuffed peppers into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Rub the outside of each peppers lightly with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Roast the peppers, turning once or twice with tongs, until softened and lightly browned in spots, about 20 minutes.
Pour in enough of the tomato sauce to barely cover the peppers. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the peppers are tender and the filling is cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove and let stand 10 minutes before serving.