I love color in food, in my kitchen, on plates, throughout my house, on walls, carpets, bathrooms, especially the garden, (where I grow an abundance of flowers and vegetables), wherever I ramble, play or work, my eyes open wide for color. Color at the grocery store, such as fruits and vegetables call to me; I imagine what I can prepare with fresh produce.
When peppers – yellow, red, orange are plentiful at the grocery store, instantly I recall how much I relished stuffed peppers as a child. That image grips me and I want to rush home, cook, immediately! Naturally life interferes, presents other things, such as work, errands, children, bills to pay, etc., and I must wait to cook. However, when I tackle this or other cooking project, I dive in, devote all the necessary time to prepare it. The rewards of cooking are fun from beginning to the end. Sometimes I wonder which I value most – the cooking project and its processes, or eating the meal. For me, both of them offer merit-although eating edges out by a hair!
Once the peppers simmer on the stove top, then in the oven, their skins soften, their aromas permeate our home. The sweetness of the peppers added welcome complexity to our senses, as scents mingled – tomato sauce, meat, mushrooms, onions, celery, garlic, cheese and spices. Although an old-fashioned dish, people have individual ways to present it. I pulled ideas from my past, other cookbooks, plus new thoughts which percolated in me. Finally, this familiar dish turned out beautifully!
In addition, because of the large amount of meat filling, and not having enough peppers, I ended up with nearly one pound of extra meat filling. I put that mixture in a large bowl, added the white bread, to help dry out the filling a little. I shaped the mound, baked it like meatloaf, which it certainly was. That too became tasty!
INGREDIENTS SERVES 6-8 + 3-4 FOR THE MEATLOAF
2 lbs ground beef – 80 or 85% or ground turkey 85%, not 93%, that would be too lean
1 large onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 Tbsp vegetable oil, divided
1 8 oz pkg sliced mushrooms, any variety, cut in half
2 cups long grain or jasmine rice, cooked
1 14.5 oz tomato sauce
1 8 oz can tomato sauce, divided
4 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
4-5 large peppers, seeds and insides cleaned out, none spicy – red, yellow, green, or orange
2 tsp Italian seasoning
2 tsp salt
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp basil, dried
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, or your favorite melting cheese, try mozzarella, Fontina, Asiago or a strong Gouda, like Estate, with hints of caramel, and a toothsome bite
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
3 slices white bread, crusts removed, coarsely ripped in half inch pieces
1 In a large pot of boiling water, add the peppers with about a half inch of their tops neatly cut off, save them and add them to the water, add 1/2 tsp salt. Lower the heat to medium low, and parboil the peppers and tops for about 10 minutes, as they soften, do not cook t hem too long. Push out the very center of the pepper tops, the top part that you want to toss in the trash. Set them aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2 In a large frying pan, add two tablespoons of oil, heat to medium. Add the onion and celery, cook on medium low heat for 5-7 minutes as the vegetables soften , slightly, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms, and a little more oil, if needed. Cook 5-7 minutes longer while the mushrooms soften and release their moisture. Turn the heat down, add the garlic and cook about one minute longer. Once cooled, add this mixture into a large bowl.
3 In that bowl add the meat, rice, basil, cumin, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, cumin powder, one teaspoon of the Italian seasoning and cheese. Add the cayenne pepper, if using. Add about 2- 3 tablespoons of the eight ounce can of tomato sauce, to slightly moisten the filling. Blend ingredients gently, do not over mix, otherwise that toughens the meat.
4 In a three quart casserole, with 3-4 inch rising sides, pour in, and spread out the remainder of the 8 oz. can of tomato sauce. Carefully fill the peppers with the meat mixture, but do not push down hard to fill them totally. (Remember, you will have leftover filling, for the meatloaf.) Top each pepper filling with one tablespoon each from the 14.5 oz. can of tomato sauce. Gently place on the top of each pepper, the small cap that you cut off earlier. Bake for 20 minutes covered with aluminum foil. Remove the foil, cook another 20-25 minutes until bubbly.
5 For the rest of meat mixture, form a nice flattish 2- 3 inch high mound, about ten inches long. Add 3 tablespoons of tomato sauce to the bottom of a 2 quart casserole. Place t he meatloaf in the casserole. Cook the meatloaf plain, without any extra topping for 25 minutes. To the remaining sauce, stir in well, the remaining one teaspoon of Italian seasoning, the ketchup. the brown sugar, and the vinegar. After the initial 25 minutes of cooking the meatloaf, spread the sauce over the meatloaf and cook an additional 20-25 minutes, basting the loaf occasionally. The brown sugar and vinegar will give the meatloaf a nice barbecue-like tang.
TIPS AND TWEAKS:
- If you like, cut up several carrots to saute with the onions and celery.
- Eliminate the brown sugar, ketchup, and vinegar, and instead use bottled barbecue sauce.
- Substitute one pound ground pork for one pound of the ground hamburger. Try one pound of ground turkey with the other pound of hamburger, or use all ground turkey.
- To the meatloaf part, add one half cup or a little more of a cooked leftover vegetable you may have.
- If you don’t have an onion, use several scallions, a red onion, or 2 small shallots.
- Once the peppers are filled, sprinkle each one with a handful of grated cheese, then top with the small cap of the peppers.