On Wednesday last week I didn’t have lunch so I walked over to the Albert Heijn by my office to grab a salad. I decided for some reason that it would be a good idea to get three bags of groceries and haul it all home on my hour long bike-ride. Don’t know if I’ll be repeating lunchtime grocery shopping anytime soon.
But anyway on this ill-fated grocery trip I did manage to find a whole bag of small multicolored peppers perfect for stuffing for only €2.99 / $3.30. And as a bonus, ground beef was also on sale. I knew exactly what I was going to make – stuffed peppers.
I grew up with stuffed peppers. It’s a cornerstone of Romanian cooking both at holiday time and for the everyday. One of the great things about stuffed peppers is that once you have the basic idea down, they’re really versatile. You can make a ton of substitutions and still end up with a really tasty and nutritious one pot meal.
While I made these stuffed peppers with beef, you can easily substitute any ground meat like chicken, pork, lamb, turkey etc. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you can make these with lentils or like my grandmother does for the lenten fast, with chopped mushrooms and arpacas (or its closest North American equivalent, barley.)
After the recipe you’ll find the substitutions I made as well as tips on choosing the right peppers, seasoning and cooking. In total I probably spent about €8.50 / $9.50 for 4 meals – not bad at all.
I’ve included my whole process here but it’s meant to be more inspiration than a strict recipe. The beauty of this dish is that it can be made in so many different ways. What I hope to share here is just how I approach making stuffed peppers, tips I’ve picked up and improvisations I made.
Until next time,
Ingredients I used
- 10 small stuffing peppers
- 1 kg (2 lbs) ground beef (or cut it in half if you don’t want leftover filling)
- 3 small onions (or 1 large onion if you don’t want extra filling)
- 5 small tomatoes on the vine (or 1 tbsp tomato concentrate and 1 can crushed tomatoes)
- ⅔ cup brown rice
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- Black pepper
- Cimbru (oregano, summer savoury, and thyme are good substitutions)
- 1 vegetable boullion cube
I ended up with close to double the filling I needed for 10 stuffed peppers. I put the rest of the filling in a sealable plastic baggie and froze it. It’ll make an easy weeknight meal another night. It can also easily be used to stuff other things like grape leaves, cabbage, tomatoes, zucchini – anything you can think of.
If you don’t need that much filling then simply cut the meat in half and only use 1 large onion – the 5 tomatoes are still okay though since they reduce a lot (or a tbsp of tomato concentrate in the filling and a can of crushed tomatoes to cover.)
I used my heavy duty cast iron Dutch oven with lid. If you don’t have anything like that you can use any deep pot with a lid.
Pro tip: see how many peppers will fit in your pot before you core them all.
Steps I followed
The first step is to make the filling which involves cooking the onion, rice, tomato and seasonings together in a pot and then adding them to the ground beef and egg. Start by dicing the onion and cook in heated vegetable oil over medium-high heat until translucent (being careful not to let it burn). Once translucent add the dry rice and stir in then cook (stirring often) while you complete the next step.
While the onion and rice are in the pan, core the peppers and dice the tomatoes.
By the time you’ve finished, the rice and onion mix will have had a chance to get dry and aromatic. Add the diced tomatoes or the tomato concentrate to the pot at this point with any seasoning you’ll be using. I used about 1/4 tsp of smoked paprika, 1/2 tsp black pepper, a small pinch of salt and 1 tsp cimbru (a Romanian herb that’s a cross between thyme, oregano and summer savoury – all or either of these will do but of course you can also experiment with your own combination.
I also used one vegetable bouillon cube and a good shake of Vegeta brand seasoning – both are optional but nice for developing more flavour. Salt to taste and if you use seasonings or bouillon cubes don’t forget they often have salt in them already.
Cover the rice, onion and tomato mix with a lid and leave to reduce for about 10 minutes. If your tomatoes don’t release much liquid and its all sticking to the pan too much you can add a small splash of water (maybe 1/4 cup.) Just be aware that too much liquid at this stage can make the filling too loose which equals loose peppers. No one wants loose peppers.
Generally the way I learned to make this from the women in my family doesn’t involve fresh diced tomatoes in the filling but instead tomato paste in the filling and a can or so of crushed tomato mixed with water and seasoning to cover the peppers. I didn’t have tomato concentrate or canned tomatoes but I did have some tomatoes on the vine that were about to go bad so I improvised and added the tomatoes to the filling.
Once the filling mix has reduced to a chunky consistency, turn off the heat and let it cool for about 5 minutes. You want to avoid adding the very hot filing to the ground beef / egg mix right away since it can start cooking the beef and egg prematurely. I removed it from the pot to my mixing bowl and spread it up the sides of the bowl to help it cool faster.
After about 5 minutes I added the ground beef and egg and started mixing with my hands. I know some people might be squeamish about touching ground meat with their hands but they really are the best kitchen tools and you’ll probably have a very hard time filling these peppers with a spoon.
Fill the peppers to about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way to the top. Don’t overfill since the rice will expand and it can overflow or break the peppers while cooking. As you fill each pepper, place it in the pot leaning one against another until it’s full.
Cover the peppers with a mix of water (with more salt and pepper in it) or the crushed tomatoes if you have them on hand. The liquid should reach to the top of the peppers. Pro tip: first swirl the liquid around in the mixing bowl you used to get every last bit of that filling flavour.
Cook on the stovetop or in an oven at 175 C (350 F) for 30 minutes or until the rice inside the peppers has fully cooked.
Serve with fresh crusty bread and a cool dollop of Greek or balkan yogurt.
Since I’m also making a conscious effort to practice cucina povera, I made a few substitutions of my own to the classic recipe so that I didn’t have to go out and buy other ingredients. In the old days this is the way it would have been done and of course, improvisation is a great source of inspiration.
Substitution 1: Arborio swapped out for brown rice
Usually in Romania we would use a rice similar to Italian arborio – short-grain and very starchy. It lends a beautiful creaminess to the finished peppers and also gels the other ingredients together well which make the filling feel firmer and heartier.
I didn’t have any arborio in the house so I used brown rice instead – not as luxurious but a little leaner, lighter and more fibre can’t hurt.
Substitute 2: Just ground beef instead of a mix of ground meats
In my region of Romania stuffed peppers are traditionally made with a mix of pork and beef, sometimes even lamb. This time ground beef was on sale so it’s all I used.
Substitution 3: Fresh tomatoes
Normally we would use tomato paste in the filling and canned tomato to cover the peppers but this time I had some tomatoes that were about to go bad so I used them in the filling and just poured seasoned water to cover them. They still turned out almost the same with plenty of flavour.