I love stuffed peppers and over the years have obsessed about how to make them. I’m always disappointed with my attempts, though, because they never live up to the first ones I ever tasted.
It was many years ago, I was about 14, and I was on an exchange trip to France. I still have a diary from that time and it’s full of sketches and gushing descriptions of all the food I was trying for the first time—baguette, Camembert, saucisson. I can’t remember what anyone in the family I stayed with looked like but I can close my eyes and remember vividly the bowl of hot chocolate I had every morning for breakfast and the tartine (baguette still warm from the boulangerie spread with butter and jam) that I dipped into it.
I can’t remember much of the outings the family took me on but I recall many of the meals as if they were yesterday. With the exception of the day that Maman (my host mother) harvested and prepared snails, mealtimes were the highlight of every day and shaped how I came to think about and prepare food.
I had been bitten by the food bug and the stuffed peppers Maman made were a particular favourite. The peppers themselves were as sweet as only those ripened under a southern French sun can be. The rice stuffing was moist and full of flavour, garlicky and herby. What I remember most, though, was how it made me feel. My taste buds and appetite were still brand new and it was as if I’d stepped into a magic world of flavour.
As with first loves, perhaps, so it is with certain early meals. They come into your life when you’re young and impressionable and stir up feelings that are unlikely to ever be replicated. I’m resigned now to never recreating the exact dish I ate in France but I think it’s possible to create a new dish which incorporates some of the essence and spirit of the original.
This recipe is a tribute to some of the most memorable stuffed peppers I’ve eaten in my life. The first, of course, that incomparable French one with its lingering flavours of a French summer. I’ve also added a Greek element in the shape of some lemony potatoes, in honour of the delicious stuffed vegetables we’ve eaten during happy meals at our friends’ house in Corfu. I’ve also given it a breadcrumb topping because I just love it but you could leave it out.
The dish made a lovely supper for a husband returning from a reluctant business trip but it was at its absolute best the next morning when all the flavours had had time to get to know each other. Now I have a new stuffed pepper memory as part of an eclectic breakfast—ranging from Spanish tortilla to doughnuts—we ate one weekend our daughter came to visit with her boyfriend. It was a perfect stuffed pepper for that sunny Sunday morning—one of my early loves to share with hers.
For the filling
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
175g short grain rice
175g tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
A large handful of chopped parsley
A large handful of chopped mint
Salt and pepper to taste
For the bell peppers
6 large peppers (red, green or yellow)
2 tbsp olive oil
4 large potatoes, each cut lengthways into 6-8 wedges
1 tsp dried oregano
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
For the topping
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 clove garlic, chopped
25g Parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
In a large frying pan, heat the oil and add the onion and garlic. Cook gently until the onion is soft, then add the rice, tomatoes, parsley, mint and salt and pepper to taste. Add the same volume of water as that of rice. Give everything a good stir. Cook, covered, on low heat for 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Cut a hat (a thin slice from the stem end) off each pepper and put aside. Remove the core and seeds from each pepper. When the rice has cooked for 10 minutes, divide the rice mixture between the peppers.
Sprinkle two tablespoons of olive oil over the base of a baking dish big enough to hold all the peppers. Put the hat back on the peppers and place them in the baking dish. Arrange the potato wedges around the peppers and sprinkle with oregano, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pour water, about 1cm in depth, into the dish, cover it with foil or a tight-fitting lid, then bake for 40 minutes to 1 hour, until the peppers are soft and the rice completely cooked.
While the peppers are in the oven, make the topping. Blitz the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, garlic, Parmesan, salt and pepper in a food processor, then stir in the olive oil.
When the peppers are cooked, remove the foil and the hats. Divide the breadcrumb mixture between the tops of each pepper, then bake for 15 minutes or so until the breadcrumbs are browned and crisp.
Serve warm or at room temperature, put the hats back on if you like.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.