Every so often I’ll find a recipe that looks so easy, I approach it with almost lazy neglect. I don’t look at it twice, and find myself drawing from memory in the kitchen. Did it call for parsley? Maybe not. Do I have it fresh? I never do, but hell, I’ll make it anyway. I suppose these are the tell-tale signs of a seasoned home cook- being discerning enough to balance out flavour with ingredients that might be alien to the recipe, and emerge with a great dish all the same. Probably not what the cookbook prescribed, but what’s the fun in playing by the rules, right?
As Indians, we are no strangers to stuffing vegetables, and whenever a new filling idea comes along, it definitely piques my interest. Alexandra Stratou’s Cooking With Loula is a lovely Greek family cookbook with a recipe for Gemista (pronounced yummy-stah), which are basically capsicum or green peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice. Nothing out of the ordinary, I know, but I vouch for both the tome and the recipe completely.
This recipe has a lot of tomato flavour going for it, so if you’re not a fan, I’d suggest swapping the tomatoes for zucchini, which you can hollow like tubes and stuff, or even aubergines, which would make the resultant sauce a chunky, yet silky one- delicious none the less. Or better yet, opt for both. A fairly simple onion and tomato gravy to whip up, the filling in the recipe also has nuts and golden raisins that swell from the cooking, adding a jammy bite to every spoonful of rice. Remember to add a pinch of sugar to the vegetables when stuffing them as this neutralises the acids in the sour vegetables, causing them to not taste sour upon cooking. A ladera dish, a Gemista must be stewed in oil, so you’ll find that locals are generous to a fault with how much olive oil they’ll pour over a pan of Gemista before sticking it in the oven. I’ve chosen to go down the more healthy route and brushed the sides with a bit instead.
Serves 2 as a meal, or 4 as a side
Tomatoes 3, medium-sized
Extra virgin olive oil 1/2 cup, you may not end up using all of it
Onion 1, medium-sized, grated
Garlic 4 cloves, crushed
Rice about 75g, any kind of rice works
Walnuts 40g, toasted and roughly chopped
Golden raisins 2 tbsp
Coriander 1/4 cup, fresh and chopped (Parsley was the original choice here, but I feel a mix of parsley and fennel leaves would be better if you’re going to use parsley. Dill is also a nice flavour here)
Dried mint powder 1 tbsp
Breadcrumbs 3 tbsp
Tomato paste 1 tbsp, or reduce tomato purée till it forms a paste and use this. Alternatively, 2 heaped tablespoons of tomato purée works fine too.
To prepare the fruits, slice their tops off and reserve the caps and keep a bowl ready. For the tomatoes, use a spoon or a serrated knife to run along the insides, letting all the pulp and seeds fall down into the bowl. For the peppers, discard the seeds and white bits. Pulse the tomato juices and flesh from the bowl and set aside.
Heat 2 tbsp EVOO in a kadai over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook till translucent. You can let it brown further, but I would do that if I was adding meat to the filling, which you can by the way. For these many peppers and tomatoes, 250g of minced mutton should be just fine.
Tip in the blitzed tomatoes. Season with salt and crank up the heat to high. Let it come to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until very little sauce remains, but it is definitely thick. Reserve 1 heaped tbsp of this filling for later. Now add the rice, walnuts and raisins and stir this to coat with the tomato sauce. You want to cook this for about 6-7 minutes. If you find it rapidly drying out, add some water in there. You want the rice to reach a stage we call ‘kacha-pakka’, which is neither cooked not uncooked. Take it off the heat and add the fresh and dried herbs. Stir to coat and season with sugar, salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and add a generous pinch of salt, pepper and sugar inside each of the fruits and fit them snugly in a casserole. Add the filling to each of these, followed by a teaspoon or so of oil, then a teaspoon of breadcrumbs. Put their caps on, and brush the sides with some more oil. Fill the casserole up till a 1/4 the height of the fruits with water and add in the reserved tablespoon of tomato-onion and garlic sauce and a tablespoon of tomato purée. Feel free to throw in a few more herbs there too. I put some dried mint and oregano in there. Cook this in the oven for an hour and fifteen minutes until the vegetables are super wrinkly and look just about ready to lose their shape. Keep topping up the water if it dries out too fast, but I don’t think this should happen. Serve hot or cold, it can be had either way.