One of the reasons I love to cook is that it allows me to indulge my own particular tastes. Like anyone else, I can get finicky, and sometimes the only way to get a really satisfying version of a favorite dish is to conjure it up myself. Case in point: stuffed bell peppers.
Up until recently, I’d never had a stuffed pepper that really hit the mark with me. (Chiles rellenos are a whole other beast; someday I’ll get around to writing about how Mexican food is my high-speed transport to my happy place.) The traditional American stuffed bell pepper usually involves a) ground beef, which I think tastes like cow-flavored gravel, b) instant rice, which creeps the hell out of me, and c) enough tomato sauce to drown a small mammal. And most recipes instruct you to cook the filling entirely in the pepper, so that by the time the meat and the rice are fully cooked, the pepper is soggy and bruised, a shadow of its former crisp self. Not really my idea of a good time.
So I set out to do American tradition one better.
I know I mentioned this before, but when it comes to cooking, I’m rather a cantankerous rebel. I’ll look at recipes for inspiration, or advice, or cooking times, but I very rarely follow anything to the letter. Most times, what I make is borne out of impatience and bravado, as I become convinced I can do anything better, smarter, and tastier than professional recipe-writers. Sometimes that hubris comes back to bite me; other times, as with these peppers, I end up stumbling headlong into something delectable.
Now, I’ll admit, this recipe was inspired by two ingredients not exactly known for their health-giving benefits: Italian sausage and boxed rice pilaf mix. I can explain the sausage–it’s chewier, juicier, and way more flavorful than ground beef, and when removed from the casing and crumbled into a pan, it plays much nicer with chunky vegetables. As for the rice pilaf, I have no excuse other than that I loved it as a child, and it adds an extra flavor dimension that you just can’t get with plain rice. That being said, I would forever consider myself the laziest cook in existence if I couldn’t replicate that effect from scratch, by cooking regular basmati rice in chicken broth with garlic powder, onion powder and a bay leaf. I haven’t yet experimented with brown basmati rice or wild rice, but you can bet your sweet bippy they’re next on my list.
These peppers are a little more labor-intensive than the run-of-the-mill. I lightly salt the peppers and drain them of excess liquid, then completely pre-cook the stuffing before sending everything into the oven. But it’s only a few minutes of extra work, all told, and the results are damn tasty. With a brief bake at a fairly high temperature, the peppers wilt slightly but retain most of their crunchy, faintly bitter integrity. Slice into them with a steak knife, and the stuffing spills out, rich, meaty, almost risotto-like. It’s hearty and bracing at the same time, and I’m actually drooling just thinking about it. SO much better than sandy beef and minute rice.
Oh, and one more thing: if you’re like me, and you’re a disastrously messy cook, and you tend to overstuff things and then knock them over, and one of your peppers ends up looking like this…
…it’s totally okay. They’re delicious enough that no one will care. (And aluminum foil is a messy cook’s best friend.)
Stuffed Peppers with Sausage (serves 4)
1 scant cup basmati rice
1 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 bay leaf
4 large green bell peppers
1 shallot or 1/2 onion
2 large carrots
2 large or 4 small zucchini
1 lb. (16 oz.) raw Italian sausage (sweet or hot, as you like)
Olive oil for sauteing
1/2 cup or one 8-0z. can tomato sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup grated Parmesan (I’ve also used leftover Manchego–yum)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400° F. In a small saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil and add rice, garlic powder, onion powder, and bay leaf. Reduce heat to low and simmer 20-25 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. Set aside.
Cut off the tops of the bell peppers, remove stems, and reserve tops. Remove the seeds and ribs from each bell pepper, then sprinkle the cleaned insides with a little salt and place upside-down on paper towels. Leave to drain while you assemble the stuffing.
Finely dice the reserved bell pepper tops, shallot or onion, carrot, and zucchini. Heat olive oil on medium-high in a large skillet. Make a shallow cut down the length of each sausage link to open up the casing; remove the casing from the sausage and discard. Using your fingers or a wooden spoon, break the sausage meat into small pieces, then brown the pieces in the olive oil. When the sausage is almost done, add veggies and saute until the meat is cooked through and the veggies are soft. Add the cooked rice and tomato sauce, and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste, then remove from heat.
Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and arrange peppers cut side up. Distribute the stuffing evenly among them. Combine the cheese and breadcrumbs (if using) and sprinkle over the top of each pepper. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the topping is browned and the peppers are just beginning to soften. Let sit for a few minutes (so you don’t burn your mouth), and serve.