From the farmers market – act three – stuffed sweet peppers

October 6th, 2009

After using them in salads, and roasting, and stewing them, I was still left with several colorful peppers from my last trip to the farmers market at Lincoln Square. With only a day until my next expedition I had to utilize the leftovers, and stuffing them sounded like a good idea. This is also the only way my kids will touch them, so stuffed peppers it was. This dish is a regular feature in my mother’s kitchen and though it may be a little old fashioned, I love cooking them. Like vegetable casserole, stuffed peppers are even better the next day, when the juices from the meat and the peppers have time to mingle. The same goes for stuffed grape or cabbage leaves.


I mostly use a mix of beef and pork minced meat, but if you are porkophobe go just for the cow. I’ve made them with chicken breast, but that never really worked for me – too dry, too flat. The meat choice is important. I use lean beef without antibiotics and hormones from Trader Joe’s and fresh rosy pork mince from the corner Polish deli (Poles really know their pork). If you have a butcher nearby where you can have the meat minced to order that’s the best deal. I would go for a pork shoulder and beef roast. The shoulder has just the right amount of marbled fat to make the stuffing tasty and juicy and you don’t need to use a lot of oil.

The tomatoes add an extra acidity to the whole mix and the carrot – sweetness. You can play with the spices – for a more Middle Eastern experience you can add ¼ tsp cinnamon and ½ tsp powdered cumin seeds. You can substitute cilantro (coriander) for the flat Italian parsley or fresh thyme for the dried sage. As for the rice – don’t worry that there is no extra water added to the stuffing – it will cook just fine soaking up the meat and tomato juices.

The stuffing will also work for stuffing tomatoes, zucchini or eggplants. Sometimes I mix my vegetables for a more dramatic effect.

The stuffed peppers I made today were supposed to last until tomorrow. They didn’t. Next time I should plan better and make more than 12!

Stuffed sweet peppers

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • ½ cup jasmine rice (or any white long grain rice)
  • 1 pound minced lean beef
  • 1 pound minced pork
  • 2 big plum tomatoes, cut in half and the flesh grated (or 4-6 Roma tomatoes)
  • 1 tsp dry sage
  • ½ tsp smoked Spanish paprika (or regular sweet paprika)
  • salt, black pepper
  • 1 handful flat Italian parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 big plum tomato, flesh grated (optional)
  • 8 bell peppers or 12 long sweet banana or Mediterranean peppers, the tops cut and deseeded

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a big frying pan and saute the onion, garlic and carrot for 4-5 minutes. Add rice and stir for a minute. Add the minced meat, season with salt and pepper, the sage and smoked paprika, and cook for a few minutes mixing well and breaking up the meat lumps that will form. When the meat starts to brown, add the grated tomatoes and cook until juices reduce by half, another 5-7 minutes. Turn off the heat, check the seasoning and add the parsley.

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C), with the rack positioned in the middle. Sprinkle the insides of the cleaned peppers with some salt and spoon in the stuffing, carefully forcing it in if using the long variety (I use the spoon handle to push the meat mix to the end). Place them tightly in a broad baking pan, big enough to hold the peppers. They don’t need extra space in between as they’ll shrink a little during the cooking. Pour the water on the bottom, sprinkle with salt and the second tbsp olive oil, cover loosely with heavy duty aluminum foil and cook for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 30 minutes or until the peppers are soft and slightly browned. Turn off the oven, cover with the foil again and leave in for 15-20 minutes before serving. You can spoon some thick Greek style yogurt on the plate and dig in.

All in the pot – late summer vegetable casserole with sausage

October 4th, 2009

As the days grow shorter, the temperatures fall and the maple trees turn red and yellow, I cherish those last few flings with fresh garden vegetables. So I’m a regular at farmers markets – the closest to garden produce you can get in a big city, unless you grow your own. Colorful peppers, eggplants, squash and zucchini, string beans, tomatoes – they all get dragged home to be transformed into salads, used with pasta, stir fries and stews. I just counted three bowls with different types of tomatoes on my kitchen counter – as usual I’ve overdone it. The same with the peppers and the zucchini – I have a mix of yellow, green and red ones staring at me. There is also a disturbing orange cauliflower that scares me every time I open the fridge.

At this time of the year I stay away from root vegetables, which I associate with cold, gray weather, and try to use the seasonal ones in simple dishes. I limit the seasoning to salt and pepper, with fresh thyme, rosemary and a lot of garden mint, parsley and cilantro (coriander). With fresh-from-the-field produce I don’t want to overdo it.


The dish I’ve made is not really a stew, as I didn’t cook it for a long time. Actually the shorter you cook it the better. It resembles Provençal ratatouille, but all is cooked in one pot and I use whatever is in my fridge, including some leftover beer (could be wine or nothing at all). If I had I would throw in some green tomatoes, too. This colorful fuss-free dish can be served as main, or as side to roasted chicken, fish or chops. Needless to say, for a vegetarian version leave the sausage out.

Vegetable casserole with sausage

  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
  • 4-6 small fresh Polish or Italian sausages – cut into 3 inch (7 cm) pieces
  • 3 sweet banana peppers, cut in rounds
  • 2 handfuls of yellow or green string beens – trimmed and cut 2 inches long (4 cm)
  • 3 small zucchini – green and yellow mixed – quartered lengthwise and cut to bite size
  • 1 medium eggplant, quartered lengthwise and cut into bite size pieces (if it has brown seeds, salt it and wait 30 minutes to get rid of bitterness)
  • 1 pound (500 gr) firm Roma tomatoes – quartered lengthwise
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
  • leaves from 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/3 cup beer or wine (optional)
  • ½ cup chopped parsley or cilantro (coriander)

Sweat the onion in 2 tbsp olive oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Add sausage and cook 3 minutes. Add the peppers, beens and eggplant, the rosemary and thyme, season it with salt and pepper and cook on medium low heat for 5-7 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for another 5 minutes stirring carefully not to mash the vegetables too much. Here you can add the last 1 tbsp of olive oil if too dry. The tomatoes come last with the beer or wine if you are using it. Increase heat to medium and cook another 10 minutes until the juices in the pot are reduced by half. Serve sprinkled with parsley and country style bread to soak the juices. It tastes even better the next day.

Tomatoes in my blood – colorful late summer salad

September 22nd, 2009

After a seemingly never-ending winter in Chicago and two great hot and sunny months in central and south-eastern Europe I’m back for a second year of cooking and food shopping in Chi-town, among other things. Hopefully the new season will be better than the first, though unfortunately the props are still the same – an almost non-existent kitchen in the hallway and even less counter space. But I smuggled deep round baking trays for holiday pita and banitsa (Bulgarian stuffed filo dough pie) and some Balkan sage and thyme, so there are improvements in the kitchen after all.


I spent half of July and all of August on the Bulgarian sea coast, starting the day with thick slices of tomatoes on buttered toast, continuing with tomatoes and feta salad for lunch, and ending it with more tomatoes and roasted long peppers or eggplants in tomato sauce, or stuffed zucchini with tomatoes, or nibbling cherry tomatoes straight from the vine, or… you get the picture.

The sun ripened tomatoes from my aunt’s garden are the second reason I go back to Bulgaria every summer – the first being my family and friends. The fact that my parents live ten minutes from the sandy beaches of Varna – the best city in the country – is also a big plus.

I’ve never found better tasting tomatoes – heavy, meaty, sweet. Bulgarians are crazy about their tomatoes, and most of them will grow their own in every available plot. August will be dominated by tomato topics such as the prices on the market, a disease threatening the crop or the extinct local varieties.

The pungent sweet fruits will even overshadow yet another cabinet crisis or new corruption scandal and everybody’s weekends will be spent not on the golden beaches, but plucking or watering the mighty tomatoes. Growing, eating and canning tomatoes is our national sport. And though I’ve been living abroad for many years now, I’m more than happy to participate in those late summer games. By September I have tomato juice flowing in my veins instead of blood, and my kids do too – after all, they are half Bulgarian.

Back in Chicago, I got to enjoy the latest crop from my mother-in-law’s back yard. That started my quest on farmers’ markets. I found reasonable tomatoes – not as sweet and aromatic as my aunt’s, but the best so far on this side of the pond – at Lincoln Square’s Tuesday market (on the parking lot by the Western Brown Line El stop). The price, $1 per pound, was also reasonable, and I went home with several varieties – Roma, regular red ones and very tasty yellow globes.

At home I made a colorful salad, adding pear-shaped yellow cherry tomatoes from my mother-in-law’s yard (they grow like crazy till late October). Though basic, it’s a beauty, and could lift your spirits for the whole day. On the market I also got sweet long peppers, so I had to use them too. This salad really depends on the flavor of the tomatoes, so make sure to use really good ones.

Never ever keep tomatoes in the fridge. They have to be eaten at room temperature or you are going to miss a lot of their aroma and sweetness. Choose specimens that are heavy for their size and rather hard, and please do use your nose – they should smell of sun and grass not fish and cardboard. I usually don’t peel them and don’t deseed.

Colorful tomato salad

  • 2 red tomatoes
  • 2 yellow tomatoes
  • 1 handful of cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 handful of yellow cherry tomatoes or any other crazy looking ones, if you can get some, otherwise more regular ones
  • ½ medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 long sweet pepper ( I used a banana pepper)
  • a few sprigs of garden mint or cilantro (coriander) or basil – chopped
  • balsamic or red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Slice the tomatoes as you like – I like country-style chunks, bite size. Slice the pepper into rings. Place all the vegetables in a salad bowl, sprinkle with salt, a little vinegar and a nice splash of olive oil. Mix carefully not to smash the tomatoes too much and sprinkle with the fresh herbs of your choice.

Serve immediately with crusty bread or sourdough baguette to soak up the juices. I, being Bulgarian, will usually add crumbled feta cheese, but the salad is perfect even without it. Eat in the garden or on the porch if you have one, with a cold fruity white wine, to keep the summer for a little bit longer.

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