Stuff That’s Stuffed

As they so often do, the Greeks have a word for it. They call the things “gemista,” and despite having read several slightly different translations, I insist it means “stuff that’s stuffed.”

Just about any vegetable wandering past a Greek cook is liable to find itself stuffed with something – often but not always meat, almost always rice, and surely a bit of the vegetable itself that’s taken out to make room. In addition, there’s usually some onion and garlic for flavor, plus herbs and spices, and probably a squeeze of citrus. Thus, any Greek stuff that’s stuffed is a perfect summary of 4,000 years of Greek cooking.

The name, by the way, isn’t all that easy to say. Gemista is hardly some Southern-accented “Jaa-MIS-ta,” though that would probably be understood in all but the remotest mountain villages. The real way, if you want to join me working at it, comes out like “Yeah-mees-TAH.”

The idea of stuffing vegetables, by most accounts, arrived in Greece by way of their much-hated Turkish overlords, right along with the idea of eating (usually stuffed) eggplant. And it’s certainly part of a larger tradition that’s not necessarily Turkish at all. By our time in human history, anybody can stuff anything with anything and get away with it. And most of the time, they’ll be glad they did.

Stuffed peppers (and other vegetables, from eggplant to zucchini to tomato to mushrooms and beyond) can now be found in just about every corner and culture on earth. Gemista, it’s worth noting, strikes a rare vegetarian chord, being a hugely popular dish for those times when Greek Orthodox believers are abstaining from meat. Most of the time in most places, there is meat involved and, although it’s a bit more controversial, often cheese as well. Think Mexican chile relleno, for a delicious example.

Still, I think Greece, Turkey and the entire Balkan region form an especially rich area for stuffed vegetables. Year ago, I remember being served stuffed cabbage rolls in a very light tomato sauce for dinner in a tiny Yugoslav village. Later, after their Civil War and the breakup of Yugoslavia, I’d realize the village was actually in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Even if many of the people were Catholic or Orthodox Christians, many of the food traditions were Muslim. From Turkey, of course.

That simple Turkish-Yugoslav dinner was a food highlight of my life, until a friend of Russian-Polish- Jewish ancestry made me the exact same thing. You’d better not talk about the history of food if you are afraid of hyphens. 

GREEK-ITALIAN STUFFED BELL PEPPERS

As you make this recipe many times, as we are sure you will, feel free to think of the bell pepper as a delivery system for flavor – or for flavors, plural. Thus the dish can start out Italian or Greek, but evolve on a whim into Tex-Mex (don’t forget to add melty cheese to the stuffing) or Spanish as peppers stuffed with paella, or even Creole/Cajun stuffed with chicken, sausage and shrimp jambalaya.

6 bell peppers, any color

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling 

8 ounces lean ground beef 

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 onion, finely diced 

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 medium zucchini, finely diced 

Juice of ½ lemon

Red pepper flakes, as needed 

1 cup cooked long-grain and wild rice 

2 cups Mom’s brand Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, or tomato sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the tops off the peppers. Remove and discard the stems, then finely chop the tops. Scoop out the seeds and as much of the membrane as you can. Place the peppers cut-side up in a baking dish just large enough to hold them upright. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef, season with Italian blend, paprika, lemon pepper, salt and pepper and cook, breaking up the lumps, until the meat is cooked through and just beginning to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the fat from the meat.

Wipe out the skillet and add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions and chopped peppers and cook until beginning to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, zucchini and lemon juice, cooking for another minute. Add a pinch or 2 of red pepper flakes. Stir in the beef and rice. Stir in about half the Mom’s sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Fill the peppers with the rice mixture. Pour a small amount of water into the bottom of the baking dish and drizzle the peppers with a little olive oil. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover, top with the remaining sauce and bake until the peppers are soft and starting to brown, 15-20 minutes. Serves 6.

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