Why is it impossible to find a good stuffed pepper? I’ve tried a few at some of the popular Greek or Mediterranean restaurants in Chicago, and all are a sad, bland mess. Unseasoned, tinny, soggy peppers, even sadder fillings that seem to be a throwaway combination of either undercooked or overcooked rice and sour tomato paste. Such a waste for a dish that has the potential to be glorious, an endlessly diverse and imaginative cornucopia for meat and veggies and rice. The mere mention of a stuffed pepper is like the harbinger of dorm food for some. “Honey, how about stuffed peppers this evening?” was once met with a look, you know, the squinty-eyed, crooked-mouth, really-do-we-have-to-eat-that greasy watery mess look, but no more. This is not the stuffed pepper recipe that emerged from a magazine during the 1970s. These stuffed peppers are now made by request and they’ve become a part of our dinner rotation. The dish requires some effort: the key lies in making a delicious, well-balanced filling. Your oven will take care of the rest.
Use peppers that appeal. I prefer using red bell peppers, or even orange and yellow ones to the green because I like the natural sweetness of the red bell to the green. The following recipe will fill 6 large bell peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds and stems removed, to make 12 halves.
6 red bell peppers
For the Filling
4-6 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp fennel seeds
1 cup diced onion
2 cloves minced garlic
8 oz. chopped mushrooms (white button or cremini)
1 pound ground turkey (or spicy chicken Italian sausage, casings removed)
3 cups diced zucchini or yellow squash
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
2 tsp paprika
½ tsp cumin
2 tbsp tomato paste
3 cups cooked rice
¼ cup minced parsley
½ tsp red chili flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated cheese (about ½ cup)
I usually grate parmesan or manchego on top. For this recipe I used Parrano cheese (because it was in the fridge), which carries the flavors of parmesan and gouda.
Halve each of the peppers lengthwise and remove the stems and seeds. Season both sides with a tiny bit of salt and pepper. For those who prefer less salt, this step can be easily omitted. Place in a glass baking dish that has been lightly oiled.
Into a large sauté pan, add oil and fennel seeds. When the oil is warmed, add the diced onion and garlic and sauté until translucent. Add mushrooms. When mushrooms are nearly done, add ground turkey or sausage, breaking up clumps with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon.
While meat is browning, add thyme, oregano, paprika, cumin, chili flakes, and check seasoning. When meat has finished browning, add zucchini, tomato paste and cook until zucchini is just wilted. Add cooled, cooked rice. Check seasoning again and add a tiny bit of water or broth if the mixture is too dry or crumbly at this stage. Stir to incorporate all ingredients thoroughly and add parsley once the heat has been turned off. Allow mixture to cool somewhat.
Preheat oven to 375° Fahrenheit
Stuff peppers with mixture – I tend to pack the mixture somewhat tightly. Add a few tablespoons of water to a lightly oiled baking dish, cover with aluminum foil and pop into the oven. Peppers will be done in 50-60 minutes. Pierce edge of pepper with a fork to determine doneness.
Remove from oven. Turn up heat to 450° Fahrenheit.
Top peppers with grated cheese and place them back into the oven—this time without any foil– for approximately 5-7 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and turned golden. Done!