Red, yellow and green stuffed peppers served with seasoned, grilled home-made sourdough.
Searching for old family recipes for this reliable comfort dish, I found a couple of options for making over. My paternal grandmother’s well-worn 1920s cookbook from The Woman’s Club of Fort Worth offers up a version begging for some updates. Due to the intense frugality of the time, the recipe calls for just “one tablespoon chopped cold fresh meat per pepper;” the rest of the filling consisted of tomatoes with a little butter, salt and paprika. Another cookbook, a collection of recipes from women’s clubs in small Texas towns, calls for stuffing the bell peppers with a mixture of ground beef onion, bread crumbs, tomato sauce and chili powder. This latter version includes a topping of sliced Velveeta, a product introduced in the late 1920s.
And both sound just too bland, honestly. Because I like stuffed peppers with an interesting filling and some Italian flair, I made simple adjustments. First, I sautéed onion, garlic and chopped bell peppers together, just enough to soften them before adding to the ground beef. And while rice is a common addition to the ground meat, I think rice becomes too mushy in the final product. Deciding to use quinoa and barley, as these both hold their consistency well into the cooking process, I discovered I had some Trader Joe’s Harvest Grains Blend (Israeli couscous, orzo, baby garbanzos and red quinoa) on hand and used that instead. Bingo — this produced a toothsome, nubby texture, and it’s a good, healthy hack for stretching your protein, too. Finally, I ramped things up with herbs and seasonings in the crushed tomato sauce, and I cut the red, yellow and green peppers in half before stuffing and baking; the presentation is prettier and they cook a little more quickly.
A couple of tips: Ground turkey or bison will work just as well as ground beef, and if you want to go vegetarian instead, use the grain blend with no meat. In any version, the delicious, simple tomato sauce goes on top, along with grated Italian cheeses and fresh herbs to finish.
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped bell pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef
1 ½ cups cooked quinoa, barley or grain blend
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
8 bell peppers, cut in half, lengthwise, stems and seeds removed
½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a skillet, warm olive oil over medium heat. Saute onion till softened, about 3 minutes. Add bell pepper and garlic, stirring until peppers are softened and garlic is fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove from heat and cool.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Turn sautéed vegetables into a bowl with ground beef and cooked grains. In a separate bowl, combine crushed tomatoes with herbs and seasonings, stirring well. Add 1 cup of the tomato mixture to the bowl with vegetables, ground meat and grains, mixing well. If the mixture feels a little dry, add a little more tomato mixture — but don’t let meat-grain blend get soupy.
Mix up the red, green and yellow bell peppers, and add as much cheese to melt on top as you like.
Arrange bell pepper halves in a large casserole dish and spoon stuffing into peppers until full and just mounded. Pour hot water into casserole dish to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Cover with foil and bake for 40-45 minutes. Remove foil and carefully spoon more of the tomato mixture atop each stuffed pepper and top with cheeses. Return to oven and bake another 10 minutes or until sauce and cheese are bubbling. Garnish with a few extra fresh herbs and serve with extra warmed tomato sauce on the side, if desired.