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.
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.