Sweet summers of my childhood… Windows wide open day and night, you can see and hear everyone in our courtyard. Tidy neighbor lady has already washed a truckload of family laundry, and bright white sheets are stretched on ropes for drying outside our kitchen window… Life is good, life is lazy, and I can smell what everyone’s cooking for dinner and hear them cackling over some gossip-de-jour. Best part of summer? Ripe vegetables, ocean of freshness and color. Dirt cheap, too, even cheaper if you are up for some haggling. And haggling we are…
My mom and I are making a trip to the farmers market to get our once-per-summer stuffed veggie fest underway. We buy bulk of Bulgarian peppers of varied colors, sweet pale summer squashes, robust cabbage heads, and of course all the fixings for stuffing – carrots, onions, rice, herbs and meat.
We mince the meat at home in an old crank meat grinder. Onions and carrots are sauteed in sunflower oil until golden and fragrant, mixed with meat, slightly precooked rice and egg, and seasoned well. Then loads of chopped fresh parsley and celery greens are added. We prepare punchy tomato sauce. All stuffables are cleaned, cored, gutted and set on a chopping board upside down to drain. Cabbage leaves are blanched in salt water, surgically de-ribbed and pounded with tenderizer. We save all the pepper “hats” because the stems give off tremendously strong aroma when cooked. They also keep stuffing from floating away.
Then we stuff. We stuff peppers and squash, we wrap stuffing in cabbage leaves. When we run out of stuffables, we make meatballs from the rest of the stuffing. We make enough stuffed veggies to feed a very hungry army of a reasonably small country. Then we pack our gigantic pot to the brim with them, and pour the hot sauce over. When pot is full, we fill a large dutch oven and some other pots, if needed.
Then we simmer for about one hour. There are no words to describe the smell. We are salivating. The entire apartment smells like peppers.
And then… And then we eat. With a dollop of sour cream and a hefty slice of white sourdough. And when the veggies are eaten, we dip some bread in that lucious red sauce. And we freeze more than half of the stuffables for fall and winter time, and eat the rest for another three or four days, until we can’t even look at them anymore. We eat them cold, we eat them hot, we eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and when only sauce is left on the bottom of the pot, we eat that, too, between meals…
And that’s how I remember my childhood summers when I cook stuffed peppers. Of course I don’t make hundreds of them in one sitting because they are available year round. And I have learned to stuff them with various exotic things, like feta cheese, and couscous, and raz-el-hanout seasoned lamb, but there is always this memory coming with them somehow.
So here is the What and How for this batch:
Stuffed Bell Peppers
5-6 medium bell peppers of various colors, cut off the “hat” with the stem, seed and remove membranes, rinse and set upside down to drain
- 1 Tbsp cooking oil
- 2 carrots, peel and shred
- 1 large onion, peel and chop reasonably fine
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped
- 1 lbs ground lamb
- 1 Tbsp of raz-el-hanout
- 1 cup whole wheat pearl (Israeli) couscous
- fresh herbs, coarsely chopped
- salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 4oz can of tomato paste
- about 6 cups of water and 4 cups of stock (I used vegetable stock)
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Saute onions, carrots and celery, until translucent, lightly golden and very fragrant. Boil water and pour couscous in it. Cook on high until water evaporates.
Remove veggies from heat, add couscous, herbs and spices, ground meat, and mix everything well.
Prepare sauce by mixing a small amount of water or stock with tomato paste. Pour tomato sauce into remaining stock+water, bring to a boil, and add garlic. Add some salt and ground black pepper, check the taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. I like my sauce punchy, sometimes I add sugar to it, but today I didn’t.
Stuff peppers pretty tightly, since everything has been already precooked and wilted to its final volume. Set peppers in a pot, cover them with “hats”, and pour sauce over. Sauce must reach the brim of the peppers, not necessarily cover the “hats”. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to simmer and cook for about 50 minutes.
Enjoy with a dollop of sour cream or crumbled feta cheese. I suggest white bread, such as dense sourdough, ciabatta or fresh baguette for dipping in the sauce.