I’d had it in my mind to make gemista for a few weeks and last Monday, when I had the house to myself, I got the chance. Gemista, or stuffed vegetables, is classic a Greek summer dish. In the ten summers that I have spent in Greece, not one has gone by without my husband’s mom or aunt constructing a tray of these rice-stuffed beauties, charred, slathered with olive oil and served with slices of feta for Sunday lunch. Now, in a house of our own, I wanted to create my own summer gemista, a dish we could rely on to bring the flavors of the Peloponnesian summer vegetable garden to our dinner table in Athens. In July, though, peppers are abundant in all of their cheerful, mardi-gras colors. I decided to take advantage of those.
From my kitchen shelf I pulled out my copy of Aglia Kremezi’s The Foods of Greece and browsed until I reached a recipe for trahana-stuffed peppers. Trahana is a dried semolina and goat milk porridge that Greeks rehydrate for use in soups or as a base for meat stews (you can find out more about trahana here). I love gemista filled with whole grains. They have a nutty flavor and transform the vegetables from an appetizer (as they are usually served in Greece) into a substantial main course. I didn’t have trahana that day but there was bulgur in my refrigerator. I decided to swap the trahana for the bulgur and base my stuffed peppers on two recipes, Agalia’s and Nancy Gaifylla’s (former About.com Greek Food Guide) Stuffed Peppers with Bulgur and Basil.
Stuffed peppers, I believe, must be one of the easier gemista to make. Pepper pulp is simple to remove and the vegetable’s exterior is sturdy, making them perfect bulgur-carrying vessels. From the time I began washing the peppers to when I slid them into the oven, only thirty-five minutes had passed which made me very happy. Cleanup was also minimal. By lunchtime, the gemista were cooling on wire racks and their caramelized flesh bursting open ever-so-slightly with bulgur tempted me to sneak a teaspoon of the stuffing, which I did. It was soft and had absorbed the flavors of the tomato and basil, but each grain held its shape.
Spyros and I ate them for dinner the next day with chunks of feta cheese and a rocket salad. Between sips of FIX, our favorite Greek lager, the stuffed peppers were like little parcels of summer, packed with herbs and wholesome pine nuts and candy-like sultanas. From the open window of our dinning room, we watched the sky turn shades plum with a background orchestra of cicada chirps. A tasty dinner, a good beer…this is a summer evening in our home.
Adapted from Aglaia Kremezi’s Tomatoes and Peppers Stuffed with Trahana, The Foods of Greece and Nancy Gaifylla’s Stuffed Peppers with Bulgur and Basil, greekfood.about.com
Bulgur-Stuffed Peppers with Basil and Pine nuts
8 red, yellow, and/or orange bell peppers (green are not as tasty in this recipe)
½ cup olive oil
1 cup grated onion
1 ¾ cup uncooked bulgur
21.5 oz. canned, chopped tomatoes
3 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
Half bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
2/3 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
¼ + 1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
1/3 cup sultanas or golden raisins
¾ cup water
- Wash and dry the peppers. Cut a ½” hat off the peppers’ top and remove the inside white pods and seeds. Remove any seeds from the pith clinging to the hat. Remove this pith and coarsely chop. Rinse the peppers well and allow them to drain.
- Add the oil and onion to a large skillet, season with a little salt, and cook 3-4 minutes over medium-high heat until softened. Add the chopped pith and continue cooking until the pith has softened and the onions are golden. Add the bulgur and stir to coat with the oil. Mix in the tomatoes, 3 cups of water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cook for ten minutes, stirring often and adding more water if needed. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the chopped parsley, basil, pine nuts, and sultanas. Cool mixture for 5 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350oF (180o C). Using a tablespoon, fill the peppers with the bulgur mixture, leaving a ¼ inch space at the top. Arrange the filled peppers so that they fit snugly into a glass baking dish. Put the hats on the peppers and pour the ¾ cup of water into the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the peppers with a little olive oil and sprinkle the tops with salt and pepper. Bake for an hour and 15 minutes, until the peppers have softened and browned.
*Bulgur-stuffed peppers can be served warm or at room temperature alongside feta cheese and a green salad.
**If the peppers start to brown too quickly, cover with foil for the remaining cooking time.