Spicy stuffed peppers

It's easy to understand why stuffed peppers are so popular on Succot menus.

peppers 88 (photo credit: )
peppers 88
(photo credit: )
It's easy to understand why stuffed peppers are so popular on Succot menus. Since peppers are at their peak during this season, they are a natural choice for celebrating nature's bounty. Besides, stuffed peppers are portable, an important consideration for serving in the succa. You have a whole main dish, meat and vegetable, in one savory package. Recently I discovered a different kind of beef filling at El Torito restaurant in Canoga Park, California, and I decided to prepare it for my Succot stuffed peppers. With corn kernels and fresh sweet and hot peppers mixed with the meat, the stuffing illustrates the holiday's harvest theme and makes a pleasant change from the commonplace ground meat and rice mixture. This stuffing is based on classic beef machaca from the Mexican region of Monterrey, known for its cattle ranches and its beef specialties. At the restaurant, I ate it in empanadas, the Mexican equivalent of burekas and of Iraqi sambusak, and in flautas, fried finger-shaped pastries that remind me of the Moroccan appetizers called cigars. For both pastries the filling was wrapped in flour tortillas, thin Mexican flatbreads, instead of dough. Traditionally, beef machaca is cooked, shredded and dried, to preserve it and make it portable, like beef jerky. But today, many people skip the step of drying, and simmer the shredded beef in a flavorful sauce to use fresh. After being poached and shredded, the beef is cooked with onions, hot peppers, tomatoes, oregano and cumin. Garlic figures prominently and sometimes is added in several stages for extra punch. At this point, the savory beef can be served as an entree with beans and rice or tortillas, used to fill pastries, made into hearty sandwiches, or scrambled with eggs for breakfast. Machaca-based filling is different from standard ground beef stuffings because it tends to have a more tender texture. If ground beef doesn't have much fat, it can become very firm during cooking. But shredded beef can be moist even if you choose a lean cut. I find that El Torito's additions of corn, sweet red peppers and semi-hot chili strips enhance the beef filling with their fresh flavors and crisp-tender texture. Chef Sal Topeta told me that they grill the corn so the kernels acquire a sweet, caramelized flavor. Follow the recipe below to prepare stuffed peppers or use the filling to stuff eggplants, another holiday favorite. Preparing the stuffing gives you a bonus tasty broth from poaching the beef. You can use it to make a satisfying soup to serve in the succa on the following day; simply simmer seasonal vegetables in the broth and embellish it with cooked noodles, rice or kneidlach. PEPPERS WITH SHREDDED BEEF STUFFING To use the filling in blintzes or burekas instead of stuffing peppers, be sure it is thick and not too wet so it won't leak out. For a simpler dish, serve the beef in its sauce over white or brown rice. To make grilled corn kernels, husk the corn and grill it briefly on the barbecue or in the broiler, turning it often, until it is lightly charred and barely tender; it will cook more inside the peppers. To save time, use cooked frozen corn or canned corn. 700 grams beef shoulder or lean beef stewing meat, excess fat trimmed, cut in 2.5-cm pieces 2 onions, 1 sliced and 1 chopped 6 garlic cloves, peeled, 3 left whole and 3 chopped 1 bay leaf Salt and freshly ground pepper About 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil 2 small fresh hot peppers, chopped 1 tsp. ground cumin 1 tsp. dried oregano A 400-gram can diced tomatoes, drained and chopped 3 Tbsp. tomato paste 3/4 cup grilled or cooked frozen corn kernels 2 red peppers, diced, plus 4 to 6 whole red or green peppers 2 semi-hot green peppers, grilled and peeled (see note below) and cut in strips Cayenne pepper (optional) Put beef in a saucepan with sliced onion, whole garlic cloves, bay leaf and salt. Add 3 cups water, or enough to just cover beef. Bring to a boil, skimming foam from surface. Cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours or until meat is very tender. Cool meat in its broth for 30 minutes. Drain broth and reserve it. Shred meat in long thin strips with your fingers, discarding any fat or gristle. Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a stew pan. Add chopped onion and cook over medium-low heat, for 7 minutes or until softened. Add chopped garlic and chopped hot peppers and saute a few seconds, stirring. Add shredded beef, cumin, oregano, tomatoes, 1 Tbsp. tomato paste and 1/4 cup beef broth and bring to a simmer. Simmer uncovered, stirring often, for 20 minutes or until mixture is thick but still moist. Add corn, diced red peppers, and grilled semi-hot pepper strips and cook for 3 minutes. Add a few Tbsp. broth if filling is dry. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Preheat oven to 190 C. Halve peppers lengthwise, discarding cores and seeds. Cook pepper halves in a saucepan of boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain well. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish large enough to hold peppers in a single layer. Set peppers, cut side up, in dish. Spoon stuffing into pepper halves, filling them generously. Mix remaining 2 Tbsp. tomato paste with 1/2 cup beef broth and pour into baking dish around peppers. Drizzle them with remaining oil. Cover and bake for 30 minutes, or until peppers are very tender. Serve peppers hot or warm, with a little sauce spooned over them. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Note: To grill semi-hot green peppers or chilies: Put peppers on broiler rack or on grill about 5 cm. from heat. Grill chilies, turning them often, until skin blisters and chars on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes. Do not let them burn. Put peppers in a bag, close bag and let stand 10 minutes. Peel using paring knife. Discard cap, seeds and ribs. Drain off any liquid. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Wiley).
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