23 September 2006

Stuffed peppers

This is a traditional dish in Bulgaria, but a lot of other countries have variations on the theme. The best way to cook it is slowly, overnight, and in a terracotta dish. I've added lots of comments at the end.

2 onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
3-4 tbsp grapeseed oil
2-3 tbsp water
2 tbsp sweet paprika
500 g minced meat
1 dl pudding rice
1 tbsp savory
3 tbsp parsley
salt and pepper to taste
2 dl water
1 tbsp tomato puree with about 2 tbsp water stirred into it
5-6 red/yellow peppers

  1. Fry the onions in the oil on medium-low. Press the garlic and add. As it begins to sizzle, add a couple of tablespoons of water to prevent burning.
  2. When the onions begin to soften and go translucent, add the paprika and stir vigorously as it can burn easily. This should take less than a minute.
  3. Add the mince and stir in to prevent lumps forming.
  4. When the mince has browned, add the rice and the remaining herbs and spices and 2 dl water. Stir in well, then bring the heat to low and let cook until the rice has taken up most of the liquid.
  5. Add the thinned tomato puree and stir in well. Cook for anoter 2-3 minutes, then take off the heat and let cool for a bit. At this stage, the stuffing can be frozen, e. g. if there's some left over, or you want to have some prepared for a later date.
  6. Wash the peppers, then with a vegetable knife cut out their handles by cutting about half a centimetre around the green base. Do not cut more off the peppers, the opening needs to be just wide enough to fill the pepper. Remove the handle with the seed part and try to get out as much of the remaining spongy bits and seeds as well.
  7. Now fill the peppers using a teaspoon, push in so no air gaps form inside the peppers and also as little as possible of the mince falls out during cooking. If you want, you can put some flour on a plate and dip the opening of the peppers in it. I don't bother with that.
  8. Place the filled peppers lying on their sides in an oven safe dish, pour some more water in to cover the bottom of the dish to about 1.5 cm, also put it's lid on or cover with aluminium foil,then cook for 1 h - 1.5 h at 200 degrees C/gas mark 6. Note that bell peppers release quite a lot of water during their cooking as well.
  9. At this point, the dish is ready and is traditionally served with a tablespoon or two of Bulgarian yougurt. My Mum is not a fan of this and makes a special bechemel sauce instead. It tends to run out long before the peppers do. Make the sauce after you have taken out the peppers from the oven.

Special bechemel sauce

3 tbsp grapeseed oil
3 tbsp plain flour
0.5 l full or semi-skimmed milk
liquid from the cooked peppers
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat up the oil in a sauce pan.
  2. Stir in the flour and let it fry lightly.
  3. Add milk, a little at the time while stirring constantly. The amout of liquid needed will vary, add enough to form a sauce. Top up with the cooking liquid from the peppers.
  4. Add the seasoning and it's ready to serve.
My Mum generally adds all the liquid at once and if it goes too thick, she adds a bit more. But I've watched Delia Smith, who adds the liquid a little at a time and it is much easier and few or no lumps form.

There are many variants on this, depending on what you want to achieve or what you happen to have at hand.

Do use pudding rice, as it swells nicely and goes a bit mushy, the long grain varieties don't work as well, but can of course be used instead.

For people without cookers, it is possible to boil instead. Use a deep pot with a thick bottom. Preferably an old fashioned pressure cooker that has a little inset plate to keep the peppers of the bottom and prevent burning. Here at least the bottom row of peppers needs to be under water. But just boil normally, not under pressure, put the lid on to prevent too much water evaporating. Cook the stuffing for longer and with more water - until it's almost ready. Then boil it for 15-20 minutes, until the peppers are ready.

A few years ago, Lundulph and I bought a beautiful terracotta pot from Bulgaria and brought home in our handluggage. It is painted and glazed and is great when serving for guests. A thing about these terracotta dishes is that they are sensitive to drastic heat changes, so if you do have a terracotta pot to cook in, make sure it goes into a cold oven, or it will crack! Particularly when cooking in a gas cooker, it heats up faster than an electric one I think, so staging the heat is advised. I put it on the S (slow cook) setting for 5 minutes, then go up to gas mark 3 for 5 minutes, then go up to gas mark 6.

As I mentioned before, for a really tasty dish, cooking overnight on the S setting is best. For electric ovens, this is 100 degrees C.

If you think the stuffing is just too fiddly, I recommend you slice the peppers lengthwise in two. Remove seeds and handle and spongy bits, then lay half of the halves at the bottom of your dish, then spread the mince over them, then lay out the remaining halves. It won't be as pretty, though.

In the Winter in Bulgaria, many people make sauerkraut. That is, pickled cabbage. It tastes quite differently to the German variety because it is made with whole cabbage heads. Many oriental shops sell soured cabbage leaves in brine and if you are brave, have a try. I think it's quite tasty. Take a cabbage leaf and put it in the palm of your hand. It should be large enough to cover the whole hand. Then put some of the mince stuffing in the middle, then fold the leaf sides into a packet and place it so that it rests on the folds and thus stops them from opening up. These can be put into the dish along with the peppers, or you can make them on their own. The same baking instructions apply.

And finally, as my Mum is a vegetarian of many years, there is a veggie option for the stuffing. Instead of the mince, add 2 dl pudding rice more, some finely chopped carrots and finely chopped mushrooms. Everything else is done the same. In fact, many meat eaters don't notice the difference at all. I'm not a big fan of quorn, but I don't see why it couldn't be used in stead of meat.

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