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Let’s Throw Together Some Stuffed Peppers

A stuffed orange pepper, looking very delicious in a bowl
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

I urge you not to be too literal about the title of this blog. I am not instructing you to take some stuffed peppers and throw them at each other, nor will I countenance your doing so! I mean "throw together" in the figurative sense. Assemble in an informal, unplanned type of way. You get the idea.

But I do mean it in that sense. Bell peppers are in season right now, big and shiny and juicy: I recommend making sausage and peppers; I recommend roasting and peeling them and finding fun ways to get them into a big sloppy sandwich; and I recommend the absolute damn hell out of stuffing them. Within reason (go nowhere near your sock drawer), you can improvise your way to a delicious and satisfying meal by peeking through the various food-containing districts of your home, grabbing a handful of things that make you think Hm, that seems like it could be tasty, and, give or take a few intermediate steps, stuffing those things into peppers. And then, uh, cooking the peppers in a hot oven. At this point if you decide to throw them, that is entirely your own decision and I am not in any way responsible for the consequences. I do not advise it, is what I am saying.

Let's cook some stuffed peppers.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need at least one big bell pepper. For yourself. You probably do not need to be told that you will also need at least one big bell pepper for each other person who reasonably expects to enjoy this meal at your table. You are free to decide for yourself that you want these to be green, if you like. Just to be clear. On the other hand, don't. Red bell peppers, as well as orange and yellow bell peppers, are sweeter and better, and also prettier. Prettiness matters! Why would you, a lover of beauty and goodness, go for the grim wan swamp green of a cooked (eventually!) green pepper, when you can go for a vivid, eye-catching color like deep red or bright orange? The answer: You would not.

However many peppers you get, and whatever color(s) they are, cut their tops off and, with a lil' knife or your own grubby mitts, remove any seeds and white flesh left inside of them.

That's just about the only ingredient you definitely need, here. That is not to say that you can just cook some bell peppers with nothing else and be like Ah, yes, the famous stuffed peppers. It is only to say that you can stuff a pepper to delicious effect with a wide variety of stuff, and I heartily encourage you to go spelunking through your various cabinets and pantries and whatnot to see what your prior grocery-shopping choices can do. Familiar old stuffed peppers typically are filled with, like, ground beef and rice, dressed up with aromatics and spices (and maybe, like, tomato paste), and sometimes topped with melty cheese. You can certainly do that, and it will taste great. If you don't have that stuff, or don't want to get that stuff, you can follow the basic outline: Some kind of hearty protein-y stuff, something broadly starchlike to soak up flavorful liquid, and Flavors.

I can attest that the batch of stuffed peppers that produced the one in the photo at the top of this blog rocked the socks off of a table full of people, including a pair of pre-teens who'd happily eat pretty much nothing but pizza and mac-and-cheese, ever. A triumph, if I do say so myself, which I do, having just done so. Or I wrote it at least. I could say it out loud if I wanted to! Not the point. The stuffing, enough to fill six large bell peppers, consisted of the following, pretty much all of which I scrounged up by just rooting around in my kitchen after abruptly deciding to stuff the peppers I'd initially bought for a whole other purpose:

    • A pound of ground turkey
    • A pound of cauliflower rice (this could also just be some cauliflower chopped coarsely)
    • A cup of dry, unshelled split red lentils (masoor dal)
    • A 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes
    • A big yellow onion, diced
    • A few cloves of garlic, minced
    • A half-dozen or so anchovy fillets, because ground turkey needs all the help it can get
    • Maybe two tablespoons of harissa
    • A big pinch of ground cumin
    • A big pinch of fancy paprika
    • A big pinch of dried oregano
    • A fistful of chopped fresh parsley
    • Maybe a tablespoon of cooking oil
    • Maybe a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
    • Salt and pepper

Looking at it in list form, I am realizing that this maybe does not support the breezy "See? Nothing much!" formulation I was going for here. Sure, yes, fine: It's a lot of ingredients. You don't have to have all of these, or really even any of them. You can do beef and rice; you can dice some eggplant and zucchini and chuck that into your peppers; you can do, uh, like, ancient grains and kale if that is your type of deal. But if you'd rather be given a list of things to pick up at the store than an admonishment to improvise based on what you can find hiding at the back of your refrigerator, then I can attest that the above stuff will stuff some peppers deliciously, and you will be glad to wolf down a pepper stuffed with it. In fact, let's proceed as though that's what you're doing, because this blog is getting long already. OK?

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. While that's going on, arrange your headless peppers open-side-up in a roasting pan or baking dish or, what the hell, any type of oven-proof vessel that will hold all of them. You'll come back to these later. In the meantime, you're gonna cook the filling.

Listen! Don't get upset. Yes: You have to cook the filling before you stuff the peppers with it. If that seems like a bunch of bullshit to you—if you are thinking If I have to cook this crap before I put it into the peppers, why don't I just cook it in a pot, slice up the peppers, cook them in the same pot at the same time, and just eat this stuff, uh, like in a pile on a plate or whatever, meat and lentils and peppers just all cooked together one single time instead of twice—hear me out. Cooking the filling beforehand is good, because you can taste it as you go (at least, once the ground meat is cooked through, that is), and you can be sure that it's all going to come out fully cooked at the end. Subsequently stuffing this cooked food into a pepper and cooking the pepper in the oven is good, in turn, because the juices of the pepper will add yet more delicious flavor to the filling, and because then you will have an artful and compact unified thing to eat, instead of a distressing pile of minced food just kind of splattered across a dish. Also because I already wrote all the earlier portions of this blog which made clear that we were making stuffed peppers, and it's too late to go back and change it all to "Let's Make A Weird Pile Of Ground-Up Food With Some Peppers In It."

Haul out a big Dutch oven or saucepan or flat-bottomed wok or whatever and heat that cooking oil in it, over medium-high heat on your stove. When it's hot, dump the diced onions in there, sprinkle them with a pinch of salt, and move them around with a wooden spoon or flexible spatula or other trusty cooking implement every couple of minutes while they sweat and soften. After, oh, maybe 10 or 15 minutes the onions will have softened quite a bit, or enough anyway; chuck in the anchovy fillets. They'll dissolve within a minute of moving things around with your implement; now toss the minced garlic in there and give everything a few turns with the implement.

Soon after the garlic hits the heat, the aroma of cooking garlic will bloom around your head like a sudden change in weather or an abrupt psychotic episode. Your mouth will begin watering, disgustingly; look at you slavering there like a monster. Awful. Now it is time to drop that pound of ground turkey in the pot; break it up with your implement and move stuff around as the turkey cooks, so that by the time the turkey is cooked through (this'll take, oh, maybe five minutes?) it also has onion and garlic evenly distributed through it. Next, in go the cumin, paprika, oregano, harissa, and some freshly cracked black pepper. Same deal as with the garlic: Move things around until it's all hot and fragrant and evenly distributed, and then add the next thing, which in this case is the cauliflower.

I'd like to pause here to reiterate my cauliflower recommendation, about which I can psychically detect some baloney skepticism out there. Don't skip the cauliflower! It tastes damn great and adds some extremely welcome sweetness to the whole enterprise. It was just a laziness-motivated brain-wave I had—Stuffed peppers often have rice, but cooking rice is a whole third cooking chore; what if I used cauliflower rice instead?—and it worked brilliantly. I don't need any of your downer shit, here! Get on board or get the hell out, man! Anyway, back to cooking.

The cauliflower is going to release a little bit of liquid as it cooks, as all vegetal type food invariably does. Your goal is not to stuff your peppers with soup, however, so give the cauliflower, oh, maybe 10 or 15 minutes of cooking, with the occasional stir and toss, so that liquid can come out and at least partially steam away before you do anything else. Next, dump in that can of tomatoes, as well as the liquid in the can; break up the tomatoes with your implement and stir it all together. Taste this stuff and add more salt if you think it needs it.

Stir in that cup of red lentils. You did this after tasting because the lentils are going to be crunchy at first; tasting a bite of this stuff with hard lentils in it will give you an inaccurate and unpleasant reading. These lentils, unshelled and split as they are, will need, oh, I dunno, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 minutes to soften, rather than the much longer cooking time whole brown lentils can demand. In that time they'll absorb a bunch of the liquid in the pot; keep things simmering briskly (and uncovered) so that much of the rest of that liquid will evaporate away, giving you, before too long, something thick that will heap up on a flat wooden spoon, rather than something liquid that will run off the sides of that spoon. That's when it's time to turn the stovetop heat off (not the oven! You haven't used that yet), stir in, oh, all but a few hearty pinches of that fistful of chopped parsley, and scoop this stuff into the peppers. It's fine if it heaps up over the top of them.

OK. So. The oven-proof vessel is now filled with some number of peppers, each stuffed with hot, fragrant food. Cover the whole shebang with aluminum foil, sock it into that oven, and set a timer for 40 minutes. When that timer goes off, yank the foil off the pan and kinda prod its contents with a fork to see if the actual peppers themselves seem as cooked as you think you'd like them. If they are, great, get 'em out of there; if they seem like they might still be a little too crunchy for your taste, it's fine to put the foil back on and sock 'em back in that oven for another 10 or 15 minutes, and then check again; if they are on actual fire, I am sorry but you really screwed this whole thing up, buddy.

In any event, at some point between now and the heat death of the universe you will use your own dang judgment to decide either that the peppers are as done as you'd like or that you are sick and tired of waiting around for them. Pull the vessel out of the oven and uncover it, drizzle that extra-virgin olive oil over the peppers, and scatter the last of that chopped parsley over the top. There. That's all the cooking.

With a pair of tongs, gently move each pepper to a plate or bowl. They might drain some hot liquid between now and when they're eaten; I wouldn't use a plate if you're planning on putting, say, a salad on there, or if you just find a modest puddle of pepper-water unsightly. Scoop out bites of the stuffing; cut away slabs of bell pepper as you go. It's sweet and hearty and filling, richly aromatic, still pleasingly fruity if you, wise and cool, went for red or orange peppers instead of green. It's a perfect self-contained meal.

Or maybe it's none of that, because you stuffed the peppers with capers, nothing but capers, and now you are choking down briny, hateful scoops of hot nonpareil capers, misery, a true nightmare. I trusted you, dammit! Never again.

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