Stuffed vegetables are prevalent in many Middle Eastern and European countries, each with their own twist and their own flavor profiles. The Greek “gemista” stuffed veggies will use pine nuts, cinnamon and mint; Italian “verdure ripieni” include Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs; “filfil rumi mahsi”, Egyptian stuffed peppers, use allspice, currants and tumeric; Balakan stuffed peppers (names vary by country, but are called “punjena paprika” in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro) are characterized by their use of paprika; and Ashkenazi stuffed cabbage, naturally, has a sweet sauce.
My favorite are Israeli stuffed vegetables. I think that the version we make in my house (my husband is the stuffed vegetables master) is a combination of the best of all the recipes, with all the exciting and palate tickling flavors that define Israeli cuisine. The addition of hot paprika, cumin, chili and coriander give this recipe its distinctive Israeli character.
Admittedly, making stuffed vegetables is a bit of a project, but the results are mouthwatering. The combination of meat, vegetables and rice all in one dish also means that once you’ve made this, you don’t need a whole lot more to round out a full meal, so it may take some time, but it really is a meal in a pot.
The Israeli version doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the vegetables. Any vegetable that can be scooped out or can wrap around the filling can be used in this dish. Wegenerally use peppers, zucchini and onions, but you can also use tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant, or any other vegetable that can be stuffed. This recipe can also be made as vegetarian by simple omitting the meat. It’s just as delicious without it and is a great vegetarian main course.
ISRAELI STUFFED VEGETABLES
Vegetables to stuff: About 6 red peppers; 4 thick zucchinis halved; 1 large onion. (Quantities will vary depending on the size of the veggies)
½ kg (1lb) minced beef
1 cup raw long grained rice (Basmati is best)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions finely chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic crushed
100 g (4 oz) tomato paste
1 grated carrot
½ small chili chopped
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ hot paprika
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
½ cup chicken stock
For tomato broth
1 800g (28 oz) can chopped tomatoes
200 g (8 oz) tomato paste
About 4 cups of chicken stock (or as much as required to cover the vegetables once they’re in the pot)
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
2 cloves of garlic crushed
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
How to do it
1. Prepare the vegetables: For the peppers, slice around the top of the pepper, near the stem and remove the “lid”, setting aside. Remove the seeds and pulp. For the zucchini, from the cut side, using a very small teaspoon or an apple corer, remove the seeds making sure you don’t pierce the bottom. For the onion, place the peeled onion in a pot of boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes. Then make a cut from the top to the bottom of the onion and carefully remove as many of the large outer layers of the onion as you can and set aside.
2. In a large wok or skillet, heat up the olive oil. Saute the chopped onion until soft. Add the garlic and saute for less than a minute, making sure it doesn’t burn. Add the mince and cook until there is no longer any pink meat. (For vegetarian, omit the meat) Add the 100g tomato paste and mix. Add the rest of the herbs and spices and saute for another few minutes until it’s all releasing lots of wonderful aromas. Add the stock and mix.
3. Remove from the heat and add the rice, mixing well till combined. Add some of this mixture to each vegetable – fill to no higher than 1 cm from the top of the vegetable and fill it loosely as the rice will expand when cooking. For the onion, place one or two sheets of onion on a clean surface and put about 1 tablespoon of filling in the middle and loosely wrap the onion around the filling so that there is a double layer of onion around the filling. You can do the same for cabbage leaves that you have also boiled in water for a few minutes.
4. Place the peppers bottom side down in a large, wide pot, and place the “lids” of the peppers back on top (this is just for show). Add the rest of the vegetables in the spaces, making sure the openings are facing upward.
5. Mix together the ingredients for the tomato broth and pour over the vegetables, making sure the liquid covers all the vegetables. This is essential to ensure that all the rice cooks.
6. Cover the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat. Simmer for 30-40 minutes or until the rice begins to overflow from the peppers and the vegetables are all cooked.
Serves about 6-8.