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How to get stuffed peppers right — the peppers, the sauce, the filling

Updated: 
October 31, 2017 - 12:05am

Fresh peppers, hot and spicy, sweet and crunchy, are the ultimate quick change artists. I roast poblanos and jalapenos for Mexican-style rajas, puree red and orange bells into soups and sauces, dice green bells and Anaheims for omelets and gingerly tuck habaneros into salsa.

When the farmers market baskets overflow with varieties not regularly found at the supermarket, I stock up. Red poblanos, slender cubanelles and yellow sweet bells prove perfect for stuffing.

Fortunately, fresh peppers keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. Simply pat dry and store unwrapped in the crisper drawer. Do not seal them in plastic as that promotes molding. If I have freezer space, I roast both sweet and hot peppers under the broiler to char the skin, then tuck the cooled specimens into freezer bags. I can peel and seed them after thawing.

On more than one occasion, stuffed peppers have disappointed: Undercooked peppers, crunchy rice and bland fillings. Moose-AKa, a Denali, Alaska, restaurant, featuring Serbian specialties, got it perfectly right on a recent visit. The long sweet red pepper, stuffed fat with spicy beef and basmati rice on a pool of tomato sauce, rekindled our interest.

At home, I start with the tomato sauce that will sit under the peppers as they cook. I love to use imported boxed tomatoes (free of citric acid and calcium chloride) for a bright-tasting sauce ready in less than 30 minutes. A touch of ground coriander and olive oil marry this sauce nicely to the sweet peppers. For a moister filling, I pool a little of the sauce over the top of the stuffed pepper before baking.

Ground beef, cooked with onions, dried currants and sweet spices, forms the base for a flavorful filling. Taking no chances on crunchy rice, I opt for cooked long grain basmati. It’s a piece of cake to cook rice in the rice cooker. By the time the sauce, filling and peppers are ready, so is the rice. Adding warm rice to the beef means it’ll absorb flavors beautifully.

Serbian-style Stuffed Red Bell Peppers

This recipes takes about 2 hours, 15 minutes to prepare and serves 6

Reheat leftover rice, or cook the rice in the rice cooker, while you work on the tomato sauce and filling preparations. If you can find red poblano peppers, they are delicious here; be aware that they may be spicy!

Tomato sauce:

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 box (26 ounces) or 1 can (28 ounces) chopped tomatoes with liquid

1/2 teaspoon each: ground coriander, salt

Beef and rice filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 pound lean ground beef

1/2 cup finely chopped green pepper

1/4 cup currants or chopped raisins

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 generous cup warm cooked rice

1/4 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon each: cinnamon, salt

1/4 teaspoon each: allspice, finely ground black pepper

2 tablespoons minced fresh dill

6 small yellow or red sweet bell peppers, 3 pounds total (or 8 to 12 large long red or yellow Anaheim peppers)

Fresh dill or parsley for garnish

For tomato sauce, cook onion in oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic; cook, 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes, coriander and salt. Simmer, stirring often, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, for filling, heat oil in large nonstick skillet until hot. Add onion and ground meat. Cook and stir over medium heat, breaking meat up into small pieces, until browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in green pepper, currants and garlic; cook and stir, 5 minutes. Stir in rice, nuts, paprika, cinnamon, salt, allspice and pepper. Remove from heat. Stir in dill. Taste and adjust salt.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top quarter off the peppers so you can remove the stem and core. Use your fingers or a small spoon to scrape out the seeds.

Pour about three-quarters of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Use a spoon to stuff each pepper full to the brim with the meat filling. Stand the stuffed peppers upright in the sauce. (If using Anaheim peppers, you will have to lay them in the sauce.) When all the peppers are filled, spoon some of the remaining sauce over the top of each stuffed pepper.

Pour 1/2 cup water into the sauce in the bottom of the dish. Cover the dish tightly with foil. Bake until the peppers are tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour for the Anaheim peppers or 1 hour and 15 minutes for the bell peppers. Let cool a few minutes. Serve garnished with dill or parsley.

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