Usually, there are two big problems with stuffed peppers: the peppers and the stuffing. Bland, bland, bland.
The dish is a great idea. Stuff something delicious into something healthy and equally delicious. Except stuffed peppers never seem to turn out that way. But what if there was a way to make this dish actually taste like something? Turns out, there is. But you need to be willing to mix things up a bit. I did, and I was thrilled with the results.
Rather than use white rice, which tends to lose all texture and taste in recipes like this, I used freekeh. It’s a delicious young “green” wheat from North Africa and the Middle East that’s been fire-roasted to give it a unique smokiness. It also happens to be astonishingly healthy, boasting high levels of protein, fiber and minerals. But for me, flavour is always first, and freekeh’s got it.
For my pepper stuffing, I pair the freekeh with a quartet of summer friends — corn, zucchini, tomato and basil — as well as a little feta cheese. To ensure a tasty filling, you need to carefully season the freekeh’s cooking liquid and work to rid the veggies and herbs of excess water before combining them. (The zucchini are salted and squeezed; the tomatoes are roasted.) Also, be sure to taste and adjust the filling’s seasonings before stuffing the peppers.
Now, about those peppers. The problem stems from the common practice of boiling the peppers to start. The goal is to tenderize them before they’re stuffed and baked, but generally the poor fellas are over-boiled, which results in their tendency to fall apart and, as noted, be flavourless.
But peppers can have tons of flavour when given the right treatment. The trick is to roast them at high heat. I slice mine in half, then roast them cut sides down, which puts a tasty little sear on the edges and helps some of the water drain out. Then I roast them cut side up, which softens the pepper a bit more. It’s still quite al dente at that point, but it’s perfectly tender after it’s been stuffed and baked.
One of the bonuses of this recipe is that you can prep and stuff the peppers a day ahead of time, then finish them in the oven right before the meal. One stuffed pepper half per person makes for a splendid side dish. Two per person makes for a delicious and nutritious meatless entree.
BAKED STUFFED PEPPERS WITH FREEKEH
Start to finish: 1 hour 40 minutes (40 minutes active)
1/2 cup cracked freekeh
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 1/2 cups water
1 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), coarsely shredded, preferably using a food processor
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 cup corn kernels (about 1 ear of corn)
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
4 red, yellow or orange bell peppers, or a mix
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup shredded basil
Heat the oven to 450 F.
In a small saucepan over medium-high, combine the freekeh, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover tightly, and cook for 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Drain any excess liquid and transfer the freekeh to a bowl.
Meanwhile, in a colander toss the zucchini with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and let drain over the sink.
In a medium skillet over medium, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the onion to the freekeh. Working with small handfuls, squeeze the zucchini to remove excess liquid, then add to the freekeh, along with the corn and feta.
Cut the peppers in half from top to bottom, leaving the stem intact if possible. Remove and discard the seeds and ribs. Brush a rimmed baking sheet with oil and arrange the peppers, cut sides down, on the pan. In a small bowl toss the tomatoes with the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, then arrange in an even layer on the baking sheet.
Roast the peppers and tomatoes on the oven’s bottom shelf for 10 minutes, or until the cut edges of the peppers are browned and the tomatoes are softened and blistered in spots. Transfer the tomatoes to the bowl with the freekeh. Turn the pepper halves over, season with salt and pepper, then roast until softened slightly, about another 5 minutes. Season the freekeh mixture with salt and pepper.
Reduce the oven to 400 F. Mound the filling in the cavity of each pepper half and bake the peppers on the oven’s middle shelf until hot, about 10 minutes. Top each with basil.
Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”