Strut your stuff(ing)

Summer vegetables like squash and tomatoes can be filled with rice or grains for a cooler variation on a traditional winter dish.

stuffed pepper 88 (photo credit: )
stuffed pepper 88
(photo credit: )
In my Parisian cooking classes, our teachers referred to zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes as "Mediterranean vegetables" and highlighted their suitability for stuffing. Yet cooks are faced with a paradox. These vegetables are at the peak of their quality during the hot season, but hearty stuffed vegetables seem more appropriate for fall or winter. Mediterranean cooks have developed a solution, with stuffed vegetables that are perfect for summer. Many stuffed-vegetable recipes from eastern Mediterranean lands are designed to be served cold or at room temperature. Instead of the usual fillings based on ground meat, which are usually served hot, the summer stuffing of choice is made of grains, especially rice. To enrich the stuffing, people opt for olive oil, chopped nuts or both. These stuffings are lighter than meat stuffings, which adds to their summertime appeal. In Egyptian Cuisine, author Nagwa E. Khalil comments that "stuffed vegetables served cold and without meat are called Dolma Kaddabeh or false dolma," adding that meatless stuffed vegetables with a rice filling are excellent dishes for cold buffets. Yogurt salad flavored with garlic, parsley and grated cucumber is Khalil's recommended accompaniment. To make rice stuffing for vegetables, Khalil sautes an onion and browns the rice as well, then seasons the mixture with dill and nutmeg. Gracia Grego, author of Lebanese Cooking (in Hebrew), also adds fried onion to her meatless rice stuffing, along with chopped tomato, parsley and fresh mint. Fayez Aoun emphasizes the importance of olive oil for enhancing meatless stuffed vegetables in 280 Recettes de Cuisine Familiale Libanaise, a book on Lebanese family cooking, adding oil to both the stuffing mixture and the cooking liquid for the vegetables. He heats chickpeas with his rice stuffing, noting that you can replace them with coarsely chopped pine nuts or walnuts, which make for festive variations. Lebanese cooks sometimes substitute bulgur for the rice. You could make stuffings with brown rice, barley, quinoa or other cooked grains to create your own healthful variations. Instead of chickpeas, you could use other beans; or prepare majadra (lentils with rice) and use it as a stuffing. Many traditional recipes call for filling uncooked vegetables with stuffings containing uncooked rice and cooking them slowly together until everything is tender. I find it easier to control the texture of the vegetables and the grains if you cook each separately before stuffing the vegetables, and finish cooking them together. Doing this shortens the cooking time, too. RICE AND CHICKPEA STUFFING FOR VEGETABLES The amount of stuffing needed varies with the size of the vegetables. If you have extra, serve it hot or cold as a side dish or serve it on chopped lettuce as a tasty rice salad. Makes enough for 6 servings - about 6 large peppers, 6 to 8 large tomatoes or about 1.4 kg. zucchini. 4 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 4 2 onions, finely chopped 4 1 cup long-grain white rice 4 3⁄4 tsp. ground cumin or 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon (optional) 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 2 cups hot water 4 3⁄4 cup cooked or canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained 4 1⁄3 cup chopped parsley or 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped dill Heat oil in a large saute pan. Add onions and saute over medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until they begin to turn light golden. Add rice and cumin and stir over low heat for 2 minutes. Add 1⁄2 tsp. salt, pepper to taste and hot water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 15 to 18 minutes or until rice is barely tender and liquid is absorbed. Let cool slightly. With a fork, fluff rice gently and mix in chickpeas and half the parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. NOTE To substitute brown rice, use the same quantities as above; cook the rice about 35 minutes, checking after 25 or 30 minutes and adding a few tablespoons hot water if pan is dry and rice is not yet tender. EASY STUFFED PEPPERS Makes 4 to 6 appetizer or 8 light main-course servings. 4 6 large red or green bell peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds and ribs discarded 4 Rice and Chickpea Stuffing for Vegetables (see recipe above) 4 1 Tbsp. tomato paste 4 1 green onion, chopped 4 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 4 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Preheat oven to 190ºC. Cook pepper halves in a large saucepan of boiling water for 4 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse briefly. Lightly oil one or two shallow baking dishes and set peppers in them. Divide stuffing among pepper halves, mounding it high. Mix tomato paste with 1⁄2 cup water, salt, pepper and green onion. Spoon a little sauce over peppers and pour the rest into baking dish. Drizzle oil over peppers. Cover and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until peppers are tender. Serve cold or at room temperature, sprinkled with parsley. SUMMERTIME STUFFED TOMATOES Makes 6 to 8 servings. 4 6 to 8 large tomatoes, ripe but firm 4 Rice and Chickpea Stuffing for Vegetables (see recipe above) Preheat oven to 200ºC. Cut off a slice from smooth end of each tomato, cutting about 1⁄4 of tomato; reserve slice as a "hat." Carefully remove pulp and seeds from tomato with spoon, without piercing skin. Sprinkle interior of tomatoes lightly with salt. Put tomatoes in an oiled baking dish. Fill with stuffing, mounding slightly, and cover with hats. Bake uncovered 25 to 30 minutes or until tomatoes are tender. SUMMERTIME STUFFED ZUCCHINI Makes 6 to 8 servings. 4 1.2 to 1.4 kg. zucchini or pale-green- skinned Middle Eastern squash (kishu) 4 Rice and Chickpea Stuffing for Vegetables (see recipe above) 4 1 Tbsp. tomato paste 4 3 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped 4 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil Preheat oven to 225ºC. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out centers. Rinse zucchini shells and pat them dry. Put them in a baking dish. Fill them with stuffing, mounding slightly. Mix tomato paste with 1⁄4 cup water and a pinch of salt and pepper and spoon mixture over zucchini. Add enough hot water to pan to cover zucchini by one-third. Add garlic to pan. Sprinkle oil over zucchini. Cover and bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 175ºC and bake 15 more minutes. Uncover and bake, basting occasionally, 15 minutes or until zucchini is very tender. HERBED YOGURT GARLIC SAUCE This sauce is a popular accompaniment for stuffed vegetables. The richer the yogurt you use, the tastier the sauce will be. If you like, stir in 1⁄2 to 1 cup grated cucumber. Makes 2 cups. 4 2 cups plain yogurt, drained of any liquid 4 2 medium-size, very fresh garlic cloves, very finely minced 4 1 to 2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley, 4 2 tsp. finely chopped dill or 1 tsp. dried mint 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Mix yogurt with garlic, herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Serve cold or at room temperature. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.