The stuffing is simply a mixture of chopped vegetables, the bits and pieces removed to make room for the stuffing – this dish wastes nothing. Together they create an unexpectedly tasty combination. Eggplants, peppers, onions and tomatoes, with herbs, grains, pine nuts and raisins cook slowly in the oven inside the vegetables for an hour or more. Once cooled completely their flavors meld together and make the perfect summer lunch.
Some people think that the idea of stuffed vegetables came to Continental Europe from Sicily, where it was introduced by Arab Moors. But I have my doubts. Italian stuffed tomatoes and zucchini are quite different from those of the Near East. They are usually rich with parmesan and other cheeses, as well as with prosciutto. In the Eastern Mediterranean cooks had to be frugal, making the most with the scraps from their hallowed and hollowed vegetables and rice or other grains.
Start by choosing a pan and that will hold, somewhat snugly, the vegetables you plan to stuff. The rule of thumb is 1 tablespoon rice for each vegetable you stuff, plus 3-4 tablespoons ‘for the pan’. But don’t worry; if you have leftover stuffing transfer to a saucepan, add some water and simmer, stirring every now and then, to make a delicious risotto.
This dish is time-consuming but worthwhile, and you can prepare it in stages. We often cook it together with our guest at Kea Artisanal. Tomatoes take longer to hollow than peppers or eggplant, so you can start them a day in advance. Once emptied, keep the tomatoes upside down over kitchen paper in the refrigerator and complete the preparation the next day.
2 or 3 small eggplants
5-7 medium ripe, but firm tomatoes (as many as the pan can hold)
5 medium green bell peppers, tops cut and reserved, seeds discarded
2-3 medium white onions, blanched in salted water for 5 minutes and drained (optional)
1 cup olive oil
3 cups chopped onions
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup pre-cooked farro or wheat berries (see NOTE)
2/3 cup black raisins
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1-2 teaspoons Maraş pepper or ground black pepper, plus more to sprinkle
1 medium tomato, thinly sliced
1-2 medium potatoes, scrubbed, halved crosswise, each half quartered
Greek Oregano, to sprinkle
Feta cheese or labne for serving (optional)
Cut each eggplant lengthwise, but not through the central axis. Cut off about 1/3 and set aside, leaving the stem attached, but peeling the green leaves that surround it. Score the flesh of the asymmetrical eggplant pieces with a knife, salt generously and and let drain in a colander for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours. Rinse under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
With a spoon remove most of the flesh from the larger part of each eggplant and chop the flesh. Chop the smaller top eggplant pieces and set aside together.
Cut off the top ½-inch of each tomato. Set aside the tops. Using a grapefruit spoon, very carefully remove as much pulp as possible from each tomato, without piercing the skin. Chop the pulp or puree in the blender and reserve. If you are stuffing onions, cut off the top 1 inch of each and, using a grapefruit spoon or a curved grapefruit knife, carefully remove most of the inner part, leaving about ¼-inch of onion shell. Chop the onion heart and add to the rest of the chopped onions. Cut and reserve the tops of 4 peppers, discarding the seeds and any inner membranes. Seed and finely dice 1 pepper and add to the chopped eggplant pulp.
Arrange the tomatoes, eggplants, onions (if using) and peppers in a baking dish that holds them snugly. Preheat the oven to 375°F (200 C).
In a large skillet heat 2/3 cup of the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions for 4 minutes. Add the chopped eggplant and pepper and sauté for another 10 minutes or until soft. Add the rice, pine nuts, farro (Wheat berries) and sauté, stirring regularly for 2 minutes. Add the tomato pulp, reserving 1/2 cup, and the raisins. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes more. Stir in the parsley, dill, and mint and cook for 1 more minute. Remove from the heat and add the salt and pepper.
Stuff the tomatoes, peppers, onions (if using) and eggplants with the rice mixture. Cover the tomatoes and peppers with the reserved tops, and arrange the tomato slices over the stuffed eggplants. Distribute the potato pieces in the gaps between the vegetables.
(If you have leftover stuffing, add some water and simmer in a saucepan. It becomes a wonderful vegetable risotto)
Pour the remaining 1/2 cup tomato pulp over everything and drizzle the remaining 1/3 cup of oil over the stuffed vegetables. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and oregano. Bake for 1 hour, or until the rice is tender (lift the cover of a tomato and check). Turn off the heat and let stand in the oven for 10 minutes, then let cool to room temperature.
Serve 1 or 1/2 of each stuffed vegetable per person with a couple of potato pieces on each plate. Accompany with Feta cheese or labne, if you like.
I cook a kilo (2 pounds) of wheat berries or farro in a pot of water for about 15-20 minutes, until they start to soften, then drain and cool. Then I transfer in a zip-log bag and freeze, to use whenever I need them for stuffing or to make a pilaf, together with bulgur that cooks fast.