I’m really drawn to the idea of stuffed vegetables- a bite inside a bite, secret layers of different deliciousness. Unfortunately, whenever I’ve eaten them in the past- whether it’s been at someone’s house, or at a restaurant- it only takes about a few bites before I start feeling heavy, and I always finish the dish feeling much more tired than re-energized.
A few summers ago in the south of France, my mother and I took a personal cooking class with a woman who lived down a dirt road, in a house surrounded by a field of basil plants. We met outside a café in the nearby town first, and she, a old-world French woman, all traditional-cooking and rules, guided us through the city market, turning over vegetables in her hands, making notes on a little worn notebook drawn from her pocket about the different weights, blemishes, prices per pound. Back at her house, she handed us freshly-picked peppers, and all three of us got down to work on her wooden kitchen table. Our main dinner dishes were Salade Nicoise and Stuffed Vegetables; we were to cook, slowly, over the next several hours, in the hot, old-fashioned little kitchen, and then we were to eat it all, just as slowly, on the side of the house with the setting sun. I don’t remember the details of her recipe, but I do remember anticipating that particular lesson, mulling over the reputation for French meal-size portions and the size of their women, thinking that surely this stuffed peppers recipe would shed some light on how to make elegant a meal so easily overwhelming.
It was the traditional recipe and it included a list so long it covered two sides of a sheet of notebook paper. There were herbs, breadcrumbs, and at least three kinds of ground meat- this I remember because one of them, unbelievably, was veal. I couldn’t believe the expense and effort that went into these stuffed peppers, and at the end of it all, I found them fine enough, but not at reflective of the typical mouth-watering French style. At first, I figured that if the French couldn’t do it, no one can. But I think this recipe I created recently is at least a step in the right direction.
4 cups/24 oz Orzo (or other small pasta), cooked
2 eggs, beaten
2 onions, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
4 handfuls of fresh spinach, chopped
4 cups mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 zucchini, diced (optional)
2 cans diced tomatoes
12 bell peppers
2 ½ cups shredded Mozzarella, divided
2 tbsp olive oil
dried Italian herbs of choice
salt & pepper
Set oven to 350 degrees. Foil the bottom of two large baking pans. Cut a sliver off the bottom of each pepper, so it can stand upright. Cut off their tops, and gut each one. Slice the stem off each top, and dice the remaining pepper.
Pour a little good olive oil into a big frying pan, and set over medium-heat. Sauté the garlic and onion. Add the diced pepper, spinach, mushrooms, and zucchini. Pour in a cup of water. Cook the vegetables on high until the water boils down, then reduce the heat and simmer a few more minutes. If necessary, add a sip of olive oil to the pan. When the pepper and zucchini pieces have become soft, remove the pan from heat.
In the largest bowl (or big soup pot) you have, mix the Orzo (cooked according to directions) with the beaten eggs, the diced tomatoes, and the veg from the pan. With a decent wooden spoon, mix well. S & P. Add in a couple pinches of herbs. Add two cups of the mozzarella and fold in carefully. Taste-test, before adding more herbs or salt and pepper as needed. If desired, you can add a dash or two of cayenne pepper at this point.
Stand up the peppers on your two foiled pans. Olive oil up each of their insides a little, just enough to help coax their skin into sweet while they’re baking. Spoon Orzo mix into each other, pushing it down to their bottoms and stopping only when you have reached their open mouths. Using the remaining ½ cup of Mozzarella, top each pepper with some of the cheese.
Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the cheese has melted, the peppers have softened and their skin is beginning to brown.
Note: I’m pretty sure I had a decent bowl of Orzo-and-Veg mix leftovers, but can’t remember how much. If you make this, feel free to let me know herehow much you had left over, so I can adjust the measurements a bit. Eating the stuffing by itself is still great. Try a good scoop of it heated up, topped in some quartered tomato pieces, some melted cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.
Also, I’ve have served these in the past with a few strips of shake-and-bake chicken (recipe soon to come!). Or, perhaps a side of soup would be a good match?
32 oz Orzo- $2.00
2 eggs- $0.40
2 onions- $0.40
6 cloves of garlic- $1.00
4 cups fresh spinach- $4.00
24oz cups mushrooms- $1.50
2 zucchini- $2.00
2 14.5oz Trader Joe’s Diced & Fire-Roasted Tomatoes- $3.00
12 bell peppers- $6.00 (would be less at the farmer’s market)
2 ½ cups shredded Mozzarella, divided- $7.00
olive oil – pantry
dried Italian herbs- pantry
salt & pepper – pantry
4 cups Orzo- 2400
2 eggs- 140
2 onions- 82
6 cloves garlic- 26
4 cups fresh spinach- 28
4 cups mushrooms- 26
2 zucchini- 62
2 cans Trader Joe’s Diced & Fire-Roasted Tomatoes- 175
12 bell peppers- 360
2 ½ cups shredded Mozzarella- 800
2 tbsp olive oil- 240
Total cost of this dinner party entrée is $27.30. Each stuffed pepper comes to around 365 calories per person.