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Stuffed peppers: beyond chile rellenos

Chile rellenos translates to “stuffed peppers.” To make them, poblano peppers are first roasted, after which the skin is peeled. The peppers are stuffed with Oxaca cheese, coated with flour and egg, deep fried until golden brown, then covered with a rich salsa roja.

This dish, common in Mexican restaurants, is a bit complicated to make, and it’s deep fried, so it’s not very healthy. Fortunately, there is more than one way to stuff a pepper. And there are many types of peppers to stuff.

Somewhat large and heart-shaped, poblanos are a mildly spicy pepper common in Mexican cooking. More common bell peppers have no heat at all. Larger than most other peppers, bell peppers have a high water content and will add moisture to any dish you cook with them. They’re also great for adding color — green when immature, they gain sweetness and color as they ripen and come in red, yellow, orange, white, pink and even purple.

Bell peppers are a good source of vitamins A, C, B6 and folic acid. The red pigment in some bell peppers contains the phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin and may help protect eyes against cataracts and macular degeneration. Lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin, two carotenoids found in red bell peppers, may protect against certain types of cancer.

Many varieties of peppers have been cultivated in Central and South America for more than 7,000 years. They come in varying sizes, colors and shapes. Some are hot and spicy; others are mild.

Although a tropical plant, peppers (capsicums) adapt well to temperate climates. Once introduced to Europe, they spread throughout Italy, Portugal and the Balkans, and quickly became an integral part of national cuisines.

Bell peppers are popular because they’re large and sweet (rather than hot). When shopping, look for firm, heavy fruit. The skin should be smooth, not wrinkled, and the stem should be fresh and green. Black or sunken spots indicate that they’re past their prime. They need cool, moist conditions to stay fresh, so store them wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator.

There are many ways to use bell peppers, but this time of year when large peppers begin to show up at farmers markets and roadside farm stands, I like to stuff them. And there are a myriad of fillings to choose from!

Stuffing gives creative cooks a world of possibilities. Traditionally, peppers have been stuffed with a mixture of meat, grain and tomatoes. But almost anything can become a stuffing. It can be sweet or savory, mild or spicy, vegetarian or made with meat.

Grains, potatoes, bread or beans make an excellent base. Add herbs and spices and sauteed vegetables like onions, mushrooms, celery, or greens like arugula or parsley for flavor. Add sausage, ground meat, eggs, cheese, tofu, or tempeh for protein to make a complete meal. Nuts and seeds or fresh and dried fruit can add texture, flavor and nourishment. Use your imagination! Almost any leftovers can become stuffing: I’ve used leftover spaghetti, fried rice or mashed potatoes. Here are some ideas:

•  Browned ground meat (lamb, beef or pork sausage) with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and rice

•  Shredded chicken blended with cheeses (cream cheese, mozzarella, Cheddar) seasoned with a little hot pepper or hot sauce

• Ground beef, rice and seasonings held together with mozzarella cheese

•  Sauteed onions, mushrooms and garlic, fresh parsley, breadcrumbs and shredded mozzarella, moistened with olive oil

• Turkey meat and walnuts or pine nuts moistened with tomato sauce and cheese.

To prepare bell peppers for stuffing, wash and remove tops, stems and seeds. You can either leave them whole, removing only the stem end, or cut them in half lengthwise — which is easier. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Throw in the peppers, cooking for three minutes. This way, they cook evenly and are just pliable enough for stuffing but not too mushy. You can do this in the morning and reserve prepared peppers for stuffing later in the day. You can freeze them at this point in plastic containers. (Freezer bags are to flimsy, and the peppers might break or crush.) To use frozen peppers, defrost before stuffing to limit breakage. Fill with stuffing and bake 20 to 30 minutes in a preheated oven. I prefer to stuff the peppers first and freeze them stuffed; there is less chance of breaking. On a busy day, take peppers out of the freezer early in the day; when you return home, place them in the oven, make a salad, and dinner is on the table.

Potato and Cheese Stuffing

Ingredients:

1 large potato

1 medium onion

1 teaspoon salt, divided

A little oil or butter

1 egg

1 cup cottage cheese (or soft farmer cheese, or combination)

1/4 cup fresh minced parsley or arugula

A dash each of turmeric, paprika and black pepper (optional)

Directions:

Boil potato in salted water until soft. Transfer to bowl and let cool.

Sautee onion in a teaspoon of oil or butter with a little salt. Cook, covered, on low heat, stirring occasionally until nicely caramelized, 15 – 20 minutes. Set aside.

In bowl, combine potato, egg, and cheese. Mash with potato masher or fork until combined. Stir in the cooked onion, fresh greens and spices, if using.

Fill pepper halves that have been prepared as above. Place in lightly oiled baking dish. Top each with a tablespoon of shredded sharp cheese. Bake at 400 degrees F. 25 – 30 minutes, until golden brown on top.

This is enough stuffing for 2 or 3 peppers (depending on size). Serves 2 – 3.

Meat and grain stuffed peppers

There are so many versions of this … because you can use any kind of meat and any kind of grain. The most common is ground beef and rice … but you can use pork sausage, ground lamb, chopped steak or turkey… and grains like millet or amaranth or sorghum … Experiment.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup grain (rice; barley; amaranth; etc.)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound breakfast sausage or other sausage or ground meat

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic

3 or 4 baby bella or other mushrooms

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup tomato sauce

For topping: 1 – 2 Tablespoons shredded Parmesan Cheese and 1 – 2 Tablespoons fine bread crumbs.

Directions:

In a small saucepan, place 1/2 cup rice or other grain, salt, and 1 cup broth or water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, and cook until water is absorbed, about 15 – 20 minutes (this depends on the grain you use).

Add sausage (or other meat) to the skillet and cook to brown and render fat. (Note: depending on the meat, you may need to add a little oil). Peel and dice the onion. Add. Sprinkle with salt. Chop mushrooms and add. Peel and mince the garlic, add, and cook for a couple more minutes. Onions should be translucent, sausage or meat browned. Add tomato sauce (or tomatoes) and cook a couple minutes longer. Stir in cooked grain.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place prepared (cooked for 3 minutes, as above) pepper halves in lightly oiled pie plates or round casseroles. Pile the stuffing in the cavity — it’s OK if it piles up. Sprinkle with shredded cheese and bread crumbs. Bake about 25 minutes, until top is nicely browned.

Serves 4. Serve with a salad of fresh, tossed greens and tomatoes.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at “mailto:yvonawrite@yahoo.com”>yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at “Words Are My World.”

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