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Monday, March 17, 2008

Gemista… Stuffed Peppers and Zucchini (Vegetarian)

Stuffed Peppers and Zucchini just like grandma used to make...

This is one of the quintessential Greek dishes and can either be cooked as a vegetarian meal or made with the addition of ground beef. This version is vegetarian and Lenten friendly for those of you who may be avoiding meat or fasting. This particular recipe was my grandmother’s and she used to make it in a wood-burning oven which made all the difference in flavour. Variations on this dish include stuffing tomatoes and other vegetables; however, this specific recipe works best with peppers and zucchini.

Years ago, here in Canada, before Greek food became synonymous with fast food fixes like Souvlaki and Gyros, all of the Greek restaurants on Danforth Avenue (Toronto’s Greek town) served stuffed vegetables along with other “magirefta” or ‘ready-cooked’ meals. Of course, this was back in the 60’s and 70’s when Greek eateries catered largely to a Greek immigrant clientele who were familiar with such dishes. Back then, when you walked into a Greek restaurant you did not usually order from a set menu. Instead, you were invited to peruse a number of ready-cooked meals that were displayed behind glass on a steam table that oftentimes ran the length of the restaurant and contained everything from baked giant white beans in tomato sauce (Gigantes), to braised sheep’s head (Kefalaki Arnisio). Of course, Souvlaki was also available in those days, but the overall variety of Greek food in those restaurants was greater than it has been since.

As time passed and the Greek immigrant community started to disperse and to assimilate within the wider Canadian milieu, Greek restaurants began to struggle as their client base was steadily eroded. When Greek food in Toronto finally broke out of its ghetto origins and into the mainstream, it did so largely by catering to the fast food side of the food service industry which was in ascendancy and appealed to a wider cross section of Canadian society. Within this context, Greek restaurateurs were forced to compete with more familiar cuisines by catering to a North American palate. So, unfortunately, meals like this one slowly disappeared from Greek restaurant menus. They were replaced by the cooked to order Greek meals known as “tis oras” or ‘at this time’, which consisted largely of grilled or fried items like Souvlaki and Calamari, along with an assortment of “mezedes” or ‘finger foods’ like Spanakopita, and cold dips like Tarama and Tzatiziki.

At home, we continued to eat the traditional meals such as this one, and only rarely had Souvlaki. To this day, after having worked in and run Greek restaurants both here in Toronto and in Greece, I prefer meals such as this one and only rarely do I eat Greek fast foods like Gyros or Souvlaki. Interestingly enough, this meal and others like it are now being re-discovered and re-interpreted by advocates of health conscious or 'fusion' cooking. For myself, I prefer to stick with this proven original which has been a part of my family’s diet for generations. I hope you will give it a try and perhaps start a new eating tradition of your own.


6 medium-sized red bell peppers
3 medium-sized zucchinis
3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
2-3 large potatoes
1 cup of rice
1 cup Greek extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
¼ cup of black raisins (or currants)
¼ cup of pine nuts
2 tablespoons of minced fresh mint leaves (or 3 tbsp. of dried mint)
2 tablespoons of minced fresh parsley
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1. Wash all vegetables well.
2. Peel, pulp and strain the tomatoes to remove the seeds and set aside.
3. Using a sharp knife cut into the tops of the peppers and continue cutting around the stem to create a “cap” which will be used to close the top of the stuffed pepper. Using your fingers or a small spoon, remove the seeds and as much membrane as you can from within the peppers without cutting through the walls or bottoms. Sprinkle a little salt and sugar inside each pepper and set aside.
4. Cut the zucchinis in half and remove the ends from each, and then slice a thin “cap” from each end and set aside. Then, using a mellon baller or a small spoon, proceed to hollow out the zucchinis without going through all the way to the bottom or piercing the walls. Sprinkle a little salt inside each zucchini half and set aside.
5. Cut potatoes into small cubes and set aside.
6. Preheat oven to 350° F (190° C.)

For the stuffing:

1. In a large frying pan, sauté the onions in half of the olive oil until golden.
2. Add strained tomato pulp and juice to the pan, mix with onions and cook for a few minutes.
3. Add the rice along with the other ingredients including the zucchini pulp, and mix well in the pan for a few minutes over a moderate heat.
4. Fill each of the peppers and zucchini halves about 2/3 of the way full with the mixture using a teaspoon. Note: do not fill all the way to the top as the rice will expand while cooking and will overflow or break through the skins of the vegetables.
5. When stuffed, place the peppers in rows and the zucchini halves standing upright among them in a deep walled baking pan. Add the cubed potatoes into the empty recesses of the pan and pour in a small amount of water, essentially enough to cover the bottom of the pan, about a 1/4 inch or so. Place the “caps” back on top of the peppers and zucchini halves and pour the rest of the olive oil overtop of everything. Sprinkle some dry bread crumbs on the top of each capped pepper and zucchini half and sprinkle salt and pepper over potato cubes.
6. Cover pan (with a cover or aluminum foil) and bake at 350° F (190° C.) for 1 hour, then uncover the pan and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the “caps” on the peppers and zucchinis have browned, the water has been cooked off or absorbed, and the peppers are tender.

Serve one pepper and one zucchini half along with a few potato cubes per serving.

Serves 6.

Kali Orexi!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand

Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Peter M said...

Sam, stuffed tomatoes are my personal fave as the tomato sweetens up.

As for the open kitchen style eateries, Zorbas on the Danforth (near Pape) still runs in this fashion.

The food is not bad.

MrOrph said...

Sam, stuffed peppers are a staple in my house. I cook them whenever I can find decent sized peppers for stuffing.

These look great. I love the addition of zuchini and potatoes. Will be giving this a go soon.

Laurie Constantino said...

Stuffed tomatoes with the type of filling you describe are absolutely one of my favorite meals ever. So much better than with a meat filling, in my opinion. Lovely recipe, thanks!

Nina's Kitchen (Nina Timm) said...

Ooooo. I'd like to get stuffed on this!

Dave Pye said...

Sam - This site is a super resource. Thanks for the nice words regarding my Greek Extravaganza attempt, and you've found a new reader in little old me.

alex said...

great blog! i've put a link from my food blog to you. I love greek cuisine. My wife is greek, that's how i got into it! :)

Lynilu said...

Well, Sam, I'm glad you left me the message on my blog! I'm going to be back here, for sure! Yum!!

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

What an interesting article! Thanks for sharing all the background information. I really enjoyed it. This dish sounds delicious! We have an Italian dish called Pomodori e Riso which are tomatoes stuffed with rice - but never with raisins and mint! What a wonderful combination!


Welcome to The Foodie Blogroll!

AMY VIG said...

Sam - thanks for leaving the comment and for bringing me to your site. These recipes look great and I can't wait to try making one myself soon!

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Peter - Yes, tomatoes are good too, but I prefer them with meat, as I find they are a little too acidic in this variation.

Mr. Orph - Let me know how they turn out!

Laurie - Yes, I find the meat stuffing is rather heavy and I too prefer the meatless stuffing.

Nina - My wife's sentiments exactly!

Dave - Welcome aboard! Glad to hear from you!

Alex - Thank you sir!

Lynilu - You're welcome to drop by anytime, and let me know if/when you try some of the recipes, please.

Jenn - Yes, the raisins and mint along with the pine nuts add a fresh dimension to this dish... I could never get enough of this meal when my grandmother made it! And thanks for the warm welcome to the Foodie blogroll!

Amy - Welcome! I can't wait to hear which ones you try and what you think!

Elsee said...

Nice variation, Sam. I do prefer the currants in a vegetarian stuffing. The potatoes are an interesting addition; I'll have to try that! To lighten up a meat stuffing, I use ground turkey instead of beef or lamb....

Mina said...

looks delicious....
Greek people really know how to cook! (and eat :P)
I've had Dolmas a couple of times... is it almost the same????