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Stuffed veggies come in many shapes and colors

I grew up on my mother’s stuffed peppers. Nothing fancy. Just a classic Spanish rice and ground beef filling, tomato rich, with a crusty layer of cheddar cheese on top.

For a youngster hostile at the thought of vegetables as a food source, those stuffed peppers represented a nonthreatening form of veggie eatery.

Of course, peppers aren’t the only vegetable suitable for stuffing. Think elegant eggplant, rich and meaty winter squash, portly portobellos, and even hollowed-out sweet onions. Part of the charm is that they’re so easily adapted to the ingredients you have on hand. Plus, most stuffed vegetable recipes can be assembled hours or even days ahead.

And no two recipes will be the same.

Indeed, like so many other dishes that rely on a cook’s imagination and whim, stuffed vegetables come in many colors, flavors and textures. Hence, the recipes that follow are mere road maps for discovery. You will inevitably inject your personal style into a given dish based on all of the factors that go into making you the kind of cook you are.

Stuffed Anaheim Chiles with Cream Cheese Filling

Makes 8 servings.

8 Anaheim chiles, 5 to 6 inches long

2 cups red or white wine vinegar

½ cup salad oil

1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds

2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Cream cheese filling (recipe follows)

Salsa (commercial brand or homemade)

1 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese

Up to several days ahead, roast and marinate the chiles: Cut a lengthwise slit in each chile (to prevent bursting), then roast under the heating element in the oven, over a gas burner or on a grill, turning as each side blisters. Place the roasted chiles in a plastic bag and store in freezer for 10 minutes so steam can loosen the skins; remove from freezer. Gently slip off skins, cut each chile open lengthwise (leave an inch uncut at each end) and remove seeds. Do not cut off the stem end.

To marinate: In saucepan, combine vinegar, salad oil, cumin seeds, garlic cloves, sugar and salt; bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes; remove from heat and let cool about 5 minutes. Pour the marinade through a strainer over the chiles, cover well and refrigerate at least 8 hours; or up to one week.

When ready to serve, remove the chiles from the marinade, draining well, and place them in a baking pan. Stuff each chile with one-eighth of the cream-cheese filling, spoon on a couple tablespoons of salsa, then sprinkle with ¼ cup of the Monterey Jack cheese. Broil until cheese is lightly golden; serve.

Delicious as a first course or side dish. Also makes a nice light meal when served with a salad.

Cream Cheese Filling: Cream together 1 (8-ounce) package softened cream cheese and 1 raw egg yolk. Stir in ½ cup chopped green onion and ½ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese.

Eggplant Stuffed with Mushrooms and Cheese

Makes 4 servings.

Two (¾- to 1-pound) eggplants

3 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups sliced mushrooms

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 egg

Nutmeg

¾ cup grated Swiss cheese

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup heavy cream (optional

Prepare eggplants as directed below. Remove from the oven, cool to handle, and scoop out meat, leaving a ½-inch thickness from outer edge. Chop the flesh into cubes and set aside (you should have about 2 cups).

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a saute pan. Cook the mushrooms until the juice has rendered and they are lightly browned; set aside. Heat remaining oil and saute the eggplant until lightly browned; drain and set aside.

In a saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, stir in the flour, and cook slowly for 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and, stirring, simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg, then mix in a few drops of the hot cream sauce into the egg to warm it, and then stir the egg mixture into the sauce, along with a dash of nutmeg.

Mix together the cheeses. Combine the eggplant, mushrooms, sauce and ¾ of the cheese mixture; taste for seasoning. Add a bit of heavy cream, as needed, to thin the mixture slightly.

Fill the eggplant shells and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Place in a baking dish and bake at 450 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until the filling is hot and bubbly. Run under the broiler to brown if necessary.

Preparing Eggplant for Stuffing: Halve unpeeled eggplants lengthwise and cross-cut the exposed flesh. Sprinkle with salt and drain, flesh side down, for at least 30 minutes. (A weight placed on the eggplant will speed up the process.) Squeeze and pat dry.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Run a knife around the skin ½-inch in from the edge (this helps retain the shape of the eggplant as it bakes). Brush the surface of each one with a little olive oil and set in a baking pan skin-side down. Add a little water to the pan, then bake until just barely tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool slightly then scoop out the flesh.

— Recipe adapted from “The Victory Garden Cookbook,” by Marian Morash.

Delicata Squash Stuffed with Wild Rice, Cranberries, Hazelnuts and Hickory-Baked Tofu

Serves 4 to 6

2 small delicata squash (about 16 ounces each), halved and seeded

Olive oil or olive oil spray

¼ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter

1½ cups wild rice

3¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth

Heaping ¼ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 large ribs celery, finely chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts (see note)

1 package (6 ounces) hickory-baked tofu, cut into ¼-inch dice (see note)

¾ cup sweetened dried cranberries

¾ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Brush or spray the cut sides of the squash with oil and sprinkle with salt. Place them face side down on a baking sheet. Bake until tender and brown around the edges, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the wild rice, vegetable or chicken broth, and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wild rice is tender, about 40 minutes.

In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Swirl to coat the pan, then add the onion, garlic, celery and carrot until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Cover the pan, adjust the heat to medium-low, and cook the vegetables until crisp-tender, about 5 more minutes. Add the sage, thyme and parsley, and saute 1 more minute; remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice with the sauteed vegetables, tofu, hazelnuts, cranberries and Pecorino Romano. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt and pepper as needed. Mound the rice mixture into the squash, dividing it evenly. Dot the surface of each stuffed squash with the butter.

Bake the stuffed squash at 375 degrees until heated through and lightly brown on the surface, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Note on Roasting Hazelnuts: Bake raw hazelnut kernels at 350 degrees until lightly golden, about 15 minutes. They will smell very fragrant. Remove from oven and let cool, then skin them by rubbing the nuts in a clean kitchen towel, or by placing the nuts in a 1-quart plastic container with a tight-fitting lid and shaking the nuts vigorously until the skins fall away from the nuts. Spread the nuts onto a wide pan, go outside and blow away the skins.

Note on Hickory-Baked Tofu: Unlike fresh tofu, which is packaged in liquid, baked tofu has a firmer, dryer texture. Teriyaki baked tofu is somewhat easier to find, and is an appropriate substitute. You can also add a spoonful of hickory-flavored barbecue sauce to a baked tofu product.

— Recipe adapted from “The Thanksgiving Table,” by Diane Morgan.

Sweet Bell Peppers Stuffed with a Risotto of Barley, Wild Mushrooms and Smokey Bacon

Makes 12 to 14 servings. (10 cups of Risotto)

For the Risotto:

½ pound smoked bacon, sliced thin and cut into ¼-inch pieces

½ cup butter

4 cups chopped yellow onion

2 cups (16 ounces) pearled barley (see note)

2/3 cup dry white wine (such as Pinot gris or Pinot blanc)

8 cups chicken broth

1 ounce (1 cup) dried porcini mushroom pieces (see note)

2/3 cup grated Parmesanio Reggiano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the Stuffed Peppers:

6 or 7 large sweet bell peppers (green, red, yellow or orange)

Olive oil (for brushing on the skins of the peppers)

Prepare the Risotto up to 3 days ahead of serving:

In large, heavy-bottomed pot, saute the bacon over medium heat until richly browned. Remove bacon with slotted spoon and reserve for later.

Spoon off all but 4 tablespoons of the bacon grease. Add the butter and the onions to the pan and saute over medium heat until the onions have softened and turned slightly golden.

Stir in the barley, wine, broth and prepared mushrooms. Stir and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the barley has absorbed most of the liquid and is very tender. It should have a creamy character, but not “soupy,” and definitely not overly dry.

Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan, along with the reserved bacon pieces.

To Prepare the Peppers for Stuffing: Using a very sharp chef’s knife, and beginning at the base of each pepper, cut lengthwise from its base through its stem, creating two equal halves, each half containing a portion of the stem, if possible so they all look equally charming. Gently remove the seeds and ribs from the insides of each half.

Stuff each half with a portion of the Barley Risotto, mounding the filling inside each pepper half. The peppers can be stuffed up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to bake them.

About 1 hour before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the outer surface of the peppers and the top of the rice with a light coating of olive oil and bake them until hot and golden, about 40 minutes.

Note on Pearled Barley: You will find boxes and packages of “pearled” barley in the grocery aisle where the rice and other grains are sold. It is also usually available in the bulk foods section of a well-stocked market.

Note on Porcini Mushrooms: I don’t reconstitute the dried mushrooms, but I do chop them before adding to the pot. I use a food processor and just run the motor in quick bursts so most of the pieces are about ¼- to ½-inch in size; some can be smaller. But you want to avoid very large pieces so that the mushroom flavor is evenly distributed.

Cindy Lydon’s Nantucket Stuffed Squash

Makes 6 servings.

6 medium summer squash

1 medium onion

¼ pound Meunster cheese

½ pound linguica sausage

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

½ cup sour cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare squash as described below

Scoop out flesh, chop and put in strainer to drain. Chop onion. Cut cheese into ¼-inch cubes. Remove skin from sausage and chop up the meat. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes to release fat; drain.

Add butter to the skillet and saute the onion until softened. Pat the draining squash meat dry with paper towels and add to the pan with the onions. Continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated, about 4 to 5 minutes. Combine the mixture with the sausage, crumbs, cheese, herbs and sour cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Fill the squash cases with the stuffing. Place in a greased baking dish and a film of water. Bake at 375 degrees until the squash is tender and the filling is heated through, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the squash.

Preparing the Squash for Stuffing: Wash and trim the squash. Blanch the whole squash in boiling, salted water until tender, but firm enough to hold its shape, and then cut in half; or half the squash, hollow out the centers, and cook the halves in boiling salted water until barely tender. Cooking time depends upon the size of the squash. Whole 5- to 6-inch “boats” will cook in 3 to 5 minutes, depending on their diameter.

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.