Provençal stuffed vegetables
I hate the word ubiquitous almost as much as I hate what generally passes for a stuffed pepper, but never has the word had a better soul mate. The stuffed pepper, along with nut-roast and vegetarian beef Stroganoff, was what vegetarians got offered in restaurants in the 1960s instead of Steak Diane or Truite aux almonds, but which, unlike these equally abused dishes, still lies dormant in the culinary wastelands. At its very worst, its stuffing is composed of overcooked, but somehow dry, boiled rice, mixed together with undercooked fried onion and tinned tomato to form a stiff porridge. This mixture is inserted into a whole red pepper which has had its top sliced off (in the 1960s the pepper was green, but we’ve moved on a long way since then). The pepper is then cooked with its lid on, long enough to warm the porridge, but not soften the pepper. It is served, falling over and spilling its greyish contents onto the plate, with grated cheddar - or without, if the victim is vegan.
The legumes farcis de Provence are, properly made, barely from the same gene pool. This recipe uses the same vegetables as the ones for making ratatouille – which in itself makes a very good stuffing. Instead of using meat (see below), you could use a mixture of ricotta and soft goats cheese. Like so many dishes Provençal, it is delicious cold as well as hot and can be prepared well in advance. For six people.
For the vegetable cases
6 medium-sized, firm but ripe tomatoes
3 small aubergines
6 small red or white onions
6 small red or green peppers
3 medium or 6 small courgettes
For the stuffing
300g minced veal, beef or pork
100 g diced bacon or salt pork
1 large or 2 small onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
The pulp of aubergine and tomato, chopped
I cup boiled rice ( leftover risotto rice is perfect)
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs (basil, tarragon, parsley), chopped
salt, pepper, olive oil
For the top
A cup of soft bread crumbs
Zest of half a lemon
2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs – as above
salt, pepper, olive oil
Peel off the outer skin of the onions, leaving the top and tail intact. In fast boiling salted water, briefly – 1 minute – blanch the courgettes and then, for a little longer, the onions. Cut the courgettes in half, lengthways. Cut the aubergines in half similarly and slice the tops off the tomatoes, peppers and onions. Using a combination of small sharp knife and a dessert spoon, scoop out the insides of all vegetables but the peppers, reserving the pulp of the tomato and aubergine for the stuffing. Remove the seeds and white fleshy bits of the peppers. Brush the aubergines and peppers with olive oil and a little salt and bake in a medium oven for about ten minutes, just to soften them.
To make the stuffing, use a deep-sided frying pan or casserole and fry the onions until soft in a little olive oil. Ad the meat and fry briskly, stirring as you do, until the meat is slightly browned. Add the salt pork and garlic, fry a little more, and then add the tomato and aubergine pulp. Season with salt and pepper and cook gently for about 25 minutes or until the meat is tender. Finally, add the rice, parmesan and herbs, mix well, check for seasoning and transfer to a bowl.
Mix the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, herbs, salt and pepper with a little olive oil, just enough to hold the mixture loosely together. Stuff the vegetables with the meat mixture, scatter the breadcrumbs on top, drizzle with olive oil and bake for about 25 minutes.
(The wine which springs to mind as the perfect companion to this dish is a Rosé from Bandol. Crisp, fresh fruit with the gentlest hint of tannin in its pale blush-pink colour)
Book onto Provence in the Autumn at Square Food Foundation and learn how to cook Provencal stuffed vegetables and other delicious French classics.