- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Celebrating the fall harvest is a popular party theme not just among gardeners, but among all who appreciate wholesome, fresh produce. In many communities, particularly those with Mediterranean roots, feasting on stuffed vegetables, often filled with a savory meat mixture, is a long-standing culinary custom of this season.

Part of the reason stuffed vegetables have played such a key role in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern menus is economy. In most areas, meat was, and still is, expensive. By turning meat into a stuffing, cooks used the vegetables to stretch the meat.

Most important, a well-seasoned, succulent stuffing lends glamour to such everyday ingredients as zucchini and green peppers, transforming them into festive fare. Their homey charm derives from the melding of the two elements — the flavorful filling and the vegetable. As they cook, the stuffing imparts an enticing aroma and a rich taste to the vegetable that encloses it.

Growing up, I enjoyed eating my mother’s Polish-style sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage. When I moved to the Mediterranean region, I discovered the deliciously varied realm of stuffed vegetables. Stuffing formulas abound. Meat stuffings are the time-honored favorite, perhaps because the dense richness of meat is the perfect complement for the light texture of the vegetables. Ground lamb and beef are preferred in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, while cooks in France and Italy use veal and pork as well. With today’s interest in lighter dishes, many people substitute chicken or turkey.

In the eastern Mediterranean and the Mideast, grain-based stuffings are equally common. Usually they are composed of rice or bulgur wheat flavored with garlic and herbs, especially dill, mint and parsley, and enriched with olive oil. Chickpeas might be added in Lebanese kitchens, and currants and pine nuts in Turkish variations. Egyptians flavor their stuffings with sweet spices — allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg. When the mixture is enhanced with a generous amount of sauteed onions or toasted nuts, or with the frequent Italian and French additions of freshly grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheeses, it can rival meat stuffing in its richness.

Fish and shellfish are sometimes featured in stuffings as well. A Moroccan-Jewish recipe for stuffed cardoons calls for a filling of fish flavored with hot peppers and saffron. In Paris, master chef Fernand Chambrette taught me to fill tomatoes with sauteed sole mixed with rice pilaf, basil and a hint of curry. Italian cooks stuff peppers with a blend of tuna, bread crumbs, chopped tomatoes, capers and olives.

Creative cooks in France have invented a grand variety of stuffings such as duxelles, made of sauteed chopped mushrooms, and butter-enriched purees of vegetables ranging from spinach to shallots to sweet red peppers.

Plum tomatoes stuffed with shallot puree

Velvety smooth shallot puree enriched with creme fraiche has a delicately sweet flavor that perfectly complements the slight tartness of the baked tomato. These tomatoes make an elegant first course or accompaniment for roast chicken or veal.

½ pound shallots, peeled and cut in half


3 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

8 ripe plum tomatoes (about 12 ounces) (see note)

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/4 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream

About 1 teaspoon thinly sliced chives, or a few small parsley sprigs (optional), for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium-size saucepan, cover shallots with water, bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes. Drain well.

In a medium-size, heavy saute pan, melt butter over low heat and add shallots, salt and pepper. Cover and cook, stirring often, about 20 minutes, or until shallots are very tender — be careful not to let them burn.

Meanwhile, cut tomatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out interior with small melon-ball cutter. Oil a shallow baking dish in which tomatoes can fit in one layer. Put tomato halves in baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sprinkle lightly with oil. Bake uncovered about 10 minutes, or until just tender.

Carefully pour out juices from inside tomato halves. Pat insides dry with paper towel.

Puree shallots in a food processor. Put puree in a small heavy saucepan and stir over low heat. Add creme fraiche or heavy cream and continue to stir until absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon shallot puree carefully into tomatoes, using 2 or 3 teaspoons puree for each tomato half, according to its size.

Return tomatoes to oven. Bake uncovered about 7 minutes, or until tomatoes are very tender. If desired, garnish each with chives or parsley sprig. Serve hot or warm. Reheat any extra shallot puree and serve it separately. Makes 4 servings.

Stuffed peppers with chickpeas, rice and olives

The meatless filling is a rice pilaf, enriched with olive oil, subtly scented with cumin and allspice and enlivened with capers. When I have chives, garlic chives, tarragon or thyme in my garden, I stir some in. Cilantro and basil are good, too.

3 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 cup long-grain white rice

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cups hot water (for cooking rice), plus additional for baking

1 tablespoon tomato paste

3/4 cup canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained (about half a 15-ounce can)

4 to 6 tablespoons diced olives, green or black

1 tablespoon capers, drained

2 tablespoons chopped green onions or Italian parsley or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or dill

4 large red or green bell peppers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 3 tablespoons 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, cumin and allspice and stir over low heat for 2 minutes. Add ½ teaspoon salt, pepper to taste and 13/4 cups hot water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 12 minutes.

Mix 1/4 cup hot water with tomato paste and pour over rice without stirring. Cover and cook for 4 to 6 more minutes or until rice is barely tender and liquid is absorbed. Let cool slightly.

With a fork, fluff rice gently and mix in chickpeas, olives, capers and green onions or herbs.

Taste and adjust amounts of salt, pepper and allspice. Cut stem end off each pepper and reserve slice, leaving stem on; remove core and seeds from inside pepper. Spoon stuffing into peppers and cover with reserved slices.

Stand peppers in a baking dish in which they just fit. Add 1½ cups hot water to dish. Sprinkle peppers with 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cover and bake for 1 hour or until peppers are very tender and stuffing is hot. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.


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