Friday, August 28, 2020

Stuffed Peppers

I was the gardener in the family. I was forever digging up the yard and planting something, much to my father's chagrin.

Growing up, my immediate farming mentors were our neighbors Ann and Maureen, creative lovely people who worked for a candy company in the city next to us. Candy!

When I was older and after we had moved to a different town, I realized they were gay. Back in the 1950's, who knew? Apparently, the whole neighborhood. But no one cared. They were talented. Creative. And fun to be around. 

As a child, I just loved their gardening acumen and interest in ...  well ... everything. They even wove rag rugs. They made great homemade fudge. In the summer, they would sometimes have early morning breakfasts on the grill. It was like a vacation. They loved my family.

Maureen was the gardener. She was, ironically, a heavy smoker. And she had asthma. But she was the one who taught me how to plant tomatoes. And peppers. She would often get out her tin watering can, put in a bit of Miracle Gro, and away we would go .....

I loved when my mother made stuffed peppers using those I had grown. Sometimes she would put them aside until she had enough to feed a family of seven. I would eye the pile ...

Unless you grow your own, the days of inexpensive peppers is a bygone era.  As is ground beef. And cheese. Still, this quintessential American dish can be economical if you plan ahead and look for sales.

When I was a young cook on my own, I often used ketchup for stuffed peppers. I loved the Crock Pot version. It was sweet. Just a bit of acidity. Kind of like that which I grew up.

Today, not so much. Instead, I like a bit of complexity. 

I rarely use ketchup. I reach for cheese. And black olives. And a great bottled marinara instead of just a canned tomato sauce.  In this case, I used RAO which is not cheap! But, it is, as far as I'm concerned, and America's Test Kitchen, the best on the market! The point is to turn it up a notch with something more flavorful that canned tomato sauce.

Choose a cheese of your choice. Here I used mozzarella.
Target had RAO on sale for only 5.99! I bought three jars (always examine the expiration date). The cheese was on sale. And I got the peppers for a great price (79 cents each). I love the sweeter taste and visual play of colored peppers, but at almost two bucks each, I don't think so. The meat was also on sale. So, it all worked out.

I used "sweet" Italian sausage but I added a pinch or two red pepper flakes to the meat mixture. It's your call.

I also like to slice the peppers down the middle. That way, you can get in more of the meat filling. Again, it's up to you. If you want to fill them from the top, go right ahead (but you may need to cook them a bit longer).

These are great served with mashed potatoes to soak up some of the lovely tomato sauce. For a great summer meal, don't forget the corn on the cob. For dessert, a berry cobbler would suffice.

This recipe makes quite a bit, so it is easy to prepare some for neighbors or friends to bake at home. I find it easy to make two at a time and then I store the extra meat filling and sauce in the fridge to make a couple more the next night and the next. You could, of course, make ahead and freeze. Like Stouffer's!

Finally, stuffed peppers are somewhere between a meatloaf and stuffed cabbage rolls, so use the seasonings and mixes you and your family enjoy.

Just out of the oven, I added a mix of cheeses I had on hand. I liked the contrasting color.

  • For the sauce:

  • 1 large red onion, sliced and diced
  • 1+ tablespoon olive oil plus more for the peppers
  • Pinch or two of salt
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 2 cups jarred marinara sauce (I use RAO)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
  • 1 good tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Juice from one 4 oz. can sliced black olives
  • 1-2 teaspoons white sugar or to taste

  • For the stuffing:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 pound Italian sausage
  • 2 cups cooked rice or 1 package Uncle Ben's original or Basmati ready rice
  • 1 cup fresh Parmessan cheese (I use "shaved" pieces and break them apart)
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
  • 2 large cloves garlic, or 4 medium, grated, minced or pressed
  • 1 10-ounce can diced tomatoes (I use Heinz "fire roasted")
  • 1 4-ounce can black sliced olives, drained (save the juice)
  • 2 + teaspoons coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper of your choice
  • Several pinches red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 4 large peppers (here I used green)
  • Sour Cream for serving (optional)

Slice the peppers in half. Clean out the seeds. Using a melon baller, remove the interior ribs and white pith. Very lightly, add a few drops of olive oil inside each pepper. Using your fingers, rub in the olive oil, including the outside. Set aside.

In a large bowl, add the beef, sausage, onion, garlic, Parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper, drained black olives, bread crumbs. If using, add red pepper flakes. Lightly mix to combine being cautious not to compact the meat while mixing. Incorporate the canned, diced tomatoes. (If desired, add several squirts of ketchup.)

In a medium/large frying pan, add the olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the diced red onion. Add a pinch or two of salt. Sautee until tender. Remove half of the onions to add to the stuffing mixture. To remaining onions in the pan, add the beef broth, black olive juice, balsamic vinegar and marinara sauce. Simmer over medium heat. Add sugar a little at a time (or none!) until you are satisfied with the taste.

In a 13 x 9 baking dish, add the sauce from the frying pan. Stuff each pepper evenly with the meat mixture. Spoon a bit of sauce on top. Place shaved pieces of Parmesan on top of each pepper and sprinkle a few drops of olive oil on top.

Lightly spray the underside of a large piece of aluminum foil to fit over casserole dish. Secure as firmly as possible.

Bake in a 375 F degee oven for about 40 minutes. Carefully remove foil and continue to bake another 10 minutes or so or until the peppers themselves are tender. Remove from oven. If desired, sprinkle with a bit more cheese of your choice. It will melt on its own. Top with sour cream, if desired.

If using smaller baking vessels, proportion the sauce, peppers and stuffing accordingly. They may require less baking time.

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