June 19, 2019

Schooled on Stuffed Peppers

I inadvertently started a family spat the other day when I asked my cousin in Israel and my mother for their Bulgarian stuffed peppers recipes. I expected the recipes to differ a bit from mine but I wasn’t prepared for the pushback I encountered. I also asked another cousin, who is a chef from my Romanian side but grew up in a Moroccan neighborhood in Israel, to weigh in. Talk about a mind-bender: After the passionate debates that ensued, I started to doubt myself. 

To my surprise, my mother insisted that she used basil and oregano in the tomato sauce in which the peppers are cooked. I thought this was impossible. Why hadn’t I ever picked up on those flavors and what do they have to do with Bulgarian food? My mother’s explanation was seconded by father, who has only coffee-making and eating abilities, so was easy to disregard. Mom said that the Bulgarian spice chubritza — a blend of savory, paprika, thyme, salt and oregano — was the rationale here and because it was unavailable in the United States — she’d substituted spices that seemed right to her palate.

That made sense to me so I called my cousin to verify. “Do you put chubritza in our family stuffed peppers recipe?” I asked her. “What? Chubritza? Of course not.” “And do you put garlic in the tomato sauce?” I asked haughtily, positive that I would prove to my mother that garlic was a mandatory ingredient in stuffed peppers. “Garlic? Are you crazy?” she said. “Surely, you put onions in the stuffed peppers though,” I said, but with less confidence than before. “I don’t put onions because my mom did not put in onions, and she is the one who taught your mom,” my cousin said.

Apparently, according to my mother and cousin — whose recipes differ — my recipe is completely wrong and not Bulgarian. To make matters worse, my cousin’s best friend was sitting next to her during our conversation. She got in on the debate, too, and an argument ensued between them. “Of course, you can’t cook different stuffed vegetables together,” my cousin said to her friend. “Why not?” Malka said. “I’ve been cooking them together for years!” “Yuck,” my cousin said to her friend. At least they agreed on something though: “Whatever your recipe is — call it what you want but don’t call it Bulgarian.”

“I had to admit that my mother’s stuffed peppers were the best I’d ever had and that I’d never been able to replicate them.”

Apparently, not a soul in my family would “ever in a million years” cook a variety of stuffed vegetables in the same pot, which I’ve done for years. “Every vegetable has its own filling and should be cooked separately,” my cousin emphasized. I can relate to their apprehension over the issue. I’ve read many American chefs’ recipes for stuffed peppers that feature cheese or quinoa or Mexican flavorings, and I admit that most of them seem unappetizing. Of course, in cooking there is right and wrong — right?

With my mother and cousin in such adamant agreement that there was no garlic or onions in stuffed peppers, I called another cousin — this one a chef, for backup. “That’s insane!” he shouted. “My mother puts tons of onions and garlic in her stuffed peppers and lots of coriander, too.” We agreed it was the craziest thing we’d ever heard. “You aren’t trying to make Polish stuffed peppers, are you?” he asked, a dig at the stereotypical sweet and bland palate of Polish immigrants in Israel. I told him I couldn’t even imagine making stuffed peppers without onions and garlic. He said that to do that was almost a matter of honor. “No garlic? Tons of garlic, in fact, more garlic.” “I know right?” I said, but I had to admit that my mother’s stuffed peppers were the best I’d ever had and that I’d never been able to replicate them. That thought perhaps was the reason this irked me. 

My chef cousin and I then talked about the implausibility of cooking stuffed vegetables without onions, and smugly concluded that we are the chefs and we would know! We ended the conversation by proclaiming the necessity of “doing your own thing” and ignoring the old-school way of thinking. Yeah! That settles it — garlic and onions stay in — basil and oregano — out! I mean, what are we — Italian?

But then my mother, as if to ingrain a hard lesson into me, used ground turkey in the stuffed peppers instead of beef. “Mom, what is this?” I asked her, deflated. “It’s stuffed peppers. What do you mean?” she said with annoyance. In an effort to lower the fat content of our family favorite, she’d stuffed the peppers with a mixture of beef and turkey. Instead of the toothsome texture and caramelized color of her filling, they looked and tasted completely different. 

That’s when I understood what was wrong with my hypothesis and also why my stuffed peppers were never as good as my mother’s. It’s not that you can’t do your own thing — chefs live to put their spin on traditional dishes. But sometimes the taste memory of your soul food alters your palate forever, rendering the tastes that come after them inferior. Some food — your mother’s food, in particular — there’s just no need to mess with, and pity the poor fool who tries. However humble or lacking in sophistication, some things are perfect just the way they are.

MOM’S “BULGARIAN” STUFFED PEPPERS

For the peppers and filling:
2 pounds ground beef, raw 1/2 cup short-grain white rice, uncooked
but rinsed and drained to remove debris
1 medium zucchini, grated and squeezed dry
1 large fresh tomato, skin removed, grated 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
12 red peppers, cored and seeded with tops cut off (freeze tops for future use)

For the tomato sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 28-ounce can tomato puree
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

For the sauce, heat olive oil in a pan and add paprika, cooking until the oil is red. Add the remaining ingredients. Simmer until oil gathers around the side of the pan and sauce thickens. If too thick, add a bit of boiling water to thin. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Mix all filling ingredients together by hand and set aside. Prep the peppers by cutting off tops and removing white pith and seeds. Place peppers snugly side by side in a greased casserole dish and fill each pepper three-fourths of the way (rice will expand during cooking and fill the peppers). With a sharp paring knife, make 3 small slits in each pepper after filling. 

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Pour cooked tomato sauce all over the tops of the peppers and cover tightly with heavy duty aluminum foil. 

Bake for 45 minutes. Remove dish from oven and increase temperature to 400 F. Remove foil and discard. With a spoon, taking care not to break the peppers, spoon sauce on top of the peppers from the bottom of the dish and return to oven for about 20 minutes, to concentrate the sauce and slightly brown the tops of the peppers.

Serves 12 as a first course, 6 as a main course.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.