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Around Succot I become passionate about peppers. I can't resist the wonderful red peppers that become plentiful at this season. This is the holiday when peppers are at their peak - their color is more intense; they are sweeter than the rest of the year; and often they are more substantial and satisfying. Fortunately, their price comes down too.
My Israeli salads of this season benefit from the addition of red pepper; of course, it doesn't hurt that the tomatoes are superior now too. With such tasty vegetables, I can enjoy the salad even without oil. Even plain strips of raw red pepper are tempting to me.
Peppers in other colors are at their best now too. Even the green ones seem to have a sun-roasted aroma. And there are more kinds of hot chilies and semi-hot peppers at the market now than during the rest of the year.
Stuffing peppers is probably the most festive way to make use of the vegetable. Stuffed vegetables tend to be reserved for holiday fare because they demand more time than simply putting a chicken or a roast in the oven and baking vegetables around it. However, as stuffed vegetables go, peppers are the easiest to prepare. Their natural cavity practically begs for a stuffing. No wonder stuffed peppers are a time-honored Succot specialty in so many households.
Sweet peppers are popular around the Mediterranean, but since my visit to Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey during Succot, I am inspired greatly by pepper dishes from Turkey. People in that gastronomically celebrated city were drying peppers from their clotheslines and on their roofs, creating the effect of a succa. They were making brilliant red pepper pastes as a luscious condiment to lend zest to all sorts of sauces and soups. It was a glorious celebration of peppers.
Turkish cooks are talented in coming up with delicious stuffed pepper recipes, and many Sephardi cooks prepare them essentially the same way. Generally the stuffing is a savory rice mixture which might be vegetarian or might include meat. With both types of stuffing, cooks of Turkish extraction feel that the key to making them flavorful is to be generous with the aromatic vegetables and the herbs.
In his book, Food from the Balkans (in Hebrew), Benny Saida's recipe for stuffed peppers beautifully illustrates how to make a rice stuffing taste good without meat. He sautes a lavish amount of onions and garlic in olive oil, then adds the rice and cooks it with broth and generous amounts of fresh parsley, dill and mint, and a pinch of cinnamon. The filled peppers cook slowly in broth with olive oil and garlic until they are luscious and tender. He uses pale green peppers, but all kinds of peppers benefit from being prepared this way.
Using pine nuts and currants to accent the rice is another popular way to lend a festive note to the filling. Emine H. Gokalp, author of L'art Culinaire en Turquie, sautes the nuts and currants in olive oil with plenty of chopped onions, then adds fresh mint and grated tomato when cooking the rice. A touch of sugar and lemon juice lend a subtle sweet-sour touch to the stuffing.
For meat fillings, lamb is the favorite, on its own or mixed with veal or beef; in some households, beef is used alone. A typical meat-and-rice filling also calls for onions, dill, parsley and mint and might include chopped semi-hot chilies. Tomato often appears in both the stuffing and the sauce. According to Arto der Haroutunian, author of A Turkish Cookbook, bulgur wheat frequently replaces the rice, especially among Turkish Kurds and Armenians.
Quite a few people simply mix the filling ingredients together, then fill the peppers. But I agree with Ayla Esen Algar, author of The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking, that partially cooking the rice in advance gives a better tasting result, as the filling cooks more evenly. Using sauteed onions instead of raw ones gives the mixture a richer flavor and is especially important in meatless fillings.
In Turkey it's the custom to serve meat-filled peppers hot and meatless ones at room temperature, but in Jewish cooking, both types are usually served hot. Stuffed peppers will retain their heat for quite a while, still another reason why they are perfect for serving in the succa.
STUFFED PEPPERS WITH RICE, PINE NUTS AND CURRANTS
Choose peppers that can stand up easily, as these are baked upright. Serve the peppers garnished with lemon wedges.
5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
3 onions, finely chopped
3â„4 cup long-grain white rice
1â„4 cup pine nuts
2 Tbsp. dried currants or raisins
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 to 2 Tbsp. fresh mint or 2 tsp. dried
1â„4 tsp. ground allspice
1â„2 tsp. sugar
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
23â„4 cups vegetable broth or water
6 or 7 fairly small red peppers (total weight about 1 to 11â„4 kg.)
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a saute pan, add onions and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add rice and pine nuts and stir 5 minutes over low heat. Add currants, tomatoes, mint, allspice, sugar, lemon juice, salt and pepper; cook 2 minutes. Add 11â„4 cups broth and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 12 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning; rice will be only partially cooked.
Preheat oven to 175Âº. Cut a slice off stem end of peppers, leaving stem on. Reserve slice; remove core and seeds from inside pepper. Spoon stuffing into peppers and cover with reserved slices. Stand them in a baking dish in which they just fit. Add 11â„2 cups broth or hot water to dish. Sprinkle peppers with 2 tablespoons oil. Cover and bake for 1 hour or until peppers are tender, basting occasionally and adding a little more water if needed. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 6 or 7 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
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