Now that Old Man Winter is sneaking around the corner, I find myself turning on the oven more often and craving comfort food more than usual, which brings me to today’s recipe, Stuffed Bell Peppers.
Growing up I remember eating stuffed peppers both at home and at Lista’s — where it was a “special” rather than a regular menu item. And it was always green bell peppers and it was always cooked in tomato sauce. The filling was pretty consistent too… ground beef, rice, chopped onion, and seasonings. At Lista’s the stuffed peppers would be deftly prepared, baked until just tender, and served covered in our famous sauce topped with Romano cheese.
But at home the process was much more involved. My mom, Doris, aside from being a wife, mother to five unruly kids, and an amazing elementary teacher, administrator, and tax accountant — was also a pretty good cook. Mom isn’t Italian like my Dad but comes from a more typical American melting pot family. So when cooking, Mom tended to stick with the basic meat and potato type meals like pot roast, beef stew, meatloaf, or stuffed peppers… and of course every casserole known to mankind! The funny thing was (well not so funny at the time) Mom didn’t have the training or experience of cooking large quantities and when she started a meal she would realize the mixing bowl or pan was too small and would have to switch up to larger and larger sizes in the process — leaving a vast wake of dirty dishes that us kids had to eventually clean up. Fortunately, with a few minor exceptions, Mom’s meals were delicious (none of us kids suffered from malnutrition) and Mom’s stuffed peppers were always a big hit.
Where did stuffed peppers originate? Well it seems many cultures have their own stuffed peppers, from the bharvan mirch of India to the chile relleno of Mexico, which have been around for centuries. However, in America it seems the classic stuffed pepper dates back to the 1800’s and were listed in the 1896 version of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” written by Fannie Merritt Farmer. In that early recipe it states that green peppers were used, but today many choose the milder red, yellow or orange peppers. Actually all bell peppers start out green and most will eventually ripen to a different color.
And all peppers are members of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Peppers (capsicum) were originally native only to Mexico, Central and South America, and typically were the hotter chili varieties. Columbus apparently discovered these peppers while seeking the then valuable black peppercorn (piper nigrum) which is a different species altogether. Columbus mistakenly named these hot chilies “peppers” and they have been called that since. The Bell Pepper (named for its bell like shape) is the only variety of pepper that does not produce capsaicin the compound which creates the heat in other varieties.
Okay, now that you are sufficiently schooled in the history of peppers how about the recipe?
Stuffed Bell Peppers
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 60-90 minutes
Serves: 4-8 servings
2 TBSP Olive Oil
2 cloves Garlic – minced
1/2 medium Onion – finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 stalk Celery – finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Dry Basil
1/4 tsp Crushed Red Pepper
1 cup Chicken Broth (or water)
1 (6 oz) can Tomato Paste
1 (28 oz) can Crushed Tomatoes
4 large Bell Peppers (any color) – cut in half long way
1 1/2 lbs. lean Ground Beef – uncooked
1 1/2 cups Cooked Rice (I used leftovers from Chinese take-out)
1/2 med Onion – finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 Egg – beaten
1 TBSP Dry Parsley Flakes
1 tsp Italian Seasoning
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Black Pepper
Pecorino Romano Cheese for topping (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray.
2. Cut peppers in half the long way (see photo above) remove seeds and membranes — set aside.
3. In a medium sauce pan, heat olive oil, garlic, onion and celery — cooking and stirring until vegetables are tender (about 5-10 minutes). Add salt, basil, and crushed red pepper and stir for one minute more. Add broth or water, tomato paste, and crushed tomatoes and whisk together until smooth. Remove from heat.
4. In a mixing bowl mix the raw ground beef, cooked rice, chopped onion, egg, parsley, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined. Stuff each pepper half with equal portions of beef/rice mixture.
5. Ladle half the sauce into the bottom of the prepared baking dish, arrange stuffed peppers (meat side up) in sauce, spoon remaining sauce over top of peppers being careful not to over fill the pan. Top with Romano cheese if desired.
6. Place in preheated oven and bake for 60-90 minutes until peppers are tender and filling reaches at least 165 degrees on a quick read thermometer.
7. Serve topped with some of the sauce and more Romano cheese if desired. (We often eat the stuffed peppers as a meal just with a tossed salad — but they are great served with mashed potatoes, pasta, quinoa, or polenta on the side.)
There you have it, Stuffed Bell Peppers (my Mom’s way). I like the texture of these stuffed peppers using the raw beef mixture — like a mini meatloaf in a pepper cup. But if your family prefers a looser texture then cook the ground beef until crumbly in step #4 and then combine as directed. I also like cooking and eating these peppers with a lot of sauce. If you are concerned about then boiling over in the oven just place the baking dish on a rimmed cookie sheet. I hope you enjoy these stuffed peppers as much as we do… and stay warm this winter!
Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”