08 July 2011


SARONNO, Italy – Yesterday was market day in Saronno, and you didn’t need to check a calendar to know that summer is in full bloom. The Saronno mamas were buying plump peppers, eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes, and I have a sneaky suspicion they were planning to stuff them. 
Picture Perfect Peppers
Stuffed vegetables are very popular in Italy and have been throughout the Mediterranean for centuries. It’s a tasty way to use up the bits and bobs of meat that are left over by combing them with rice or tiny pasta or even cous cous. 

In some regions of Italy you might see pine nuts added to rice and ground beef, or raisins added to a cous cous and lamb stuffing, or neither of them. That is  the beauty of stuffed vegetables, you can fill them with almost anything, bake them in the oven, and they won’t disappoint you. 
My love of stuffed vegetables expanded beyond my mother’s delicious recipe for stuffed peppers with rice and ground beef when I lived in Genova. In the city’s historic center, and in the area behind the Oriental Market, there are take-out shops, no bigger than a closet, that sell stuffed zucchini and stuffed onions alongside trays of farinata and foccacia.  (see Auntie Pasta post of August 13, 2010, http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.com/2010/08/on-road-savory-savona.html  

The most common Genovese filling is made up of bread (the soft white center) soaked in milk, bread crumbs, parmigiano cheese, a variety of herbs and eggs to bind the mixture. 

The flavoring agents depend on what vegetable is being stuffed. For eggplant, they add chopped porcini mushrooms plus a little garlic and oregano; for zucchini and onions, the mushrooms are omitted and they throw in a pinch of nutmeg. Chopped parsley is added to stuffed tomatoes and the mushrooms are back for stuffed artichokes. The artichokes recipe also calls for the chopped stalks of the artichokes, chopped leeks, oregano and nutmeg. 
Yummy Stuffed Mushrooms
My grandmother would come back to haunt me if I ever put oregano on artichokes – no matter how I cooked them. The Romans have a special herb called mintuccia that they use exclusively for artichokes, a type of mint that grows wild on the hillsides around Rome. I have mintuccia growing in a container on my kitchen balcony and just the smell of it brings back wonderful memories of my grandmother’s kitchen.

You can stuff almost any vegetable, even escarole and lettuce, but that seems to me to be a lot of work because you have to tie the whole thing together with string to keep the filling from falling out when you cook it. No doubt it is delicious but there are so many other vegetables that are just begging to be filled, like tomatoes for example, why bother.
Refreshing Stuffed Tomato
Here’s an easy recipe from the Corriere della Sera, Milan’s daily newspaper. 

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes
Serves 4

4 large tomatoes
80 grams of ground beef (more or less 3 ounces)
60 grams of long grain rice
60 grams of fresh (or frozen) peas
2 small zucchini
1 carrot
1 white onion
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash the tomatoes and cut off the tops (see photo). You can also cut a very little bit off the bottom so they stand up better. Scoop out the inside of the tomatoes, chop it into pieces no larger than the peas, and set it aside.  Chop the onion, the carrot and the zucchini also into pieces no larger than the peas. 

Put a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add the chopped onion, carrot and zucchini, the ground beef, the rice, a cup of water and let it cook together for about 10 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. 

Fill the scooped out tomatoes with the rice and ground beef filling, and cover them with the tomato tops.  Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of them and then place a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a casserole pan and bake in a preheated oven (160 C/325F) for 40 minutes. 

The recipes calls for making a sauce out of the chopped tomatoes and serving the stuffed tomato on top of it, just as you see in the photo, but to tell you the truth you could just as easily add the chopped tomatoes to the rice and meat mix and reduce the amount of water, or leave it out altogether. 

You can use this filling for any vegetable you want to stuff. You can substitute the rice with couscous or the soft center of Italian bread, or tiny pasta, or leave them out as well and just chop the vegetable centers   you’ve scooped out, either with ground beef, lamb or pork, or no meat at all. You don’t need peas, or carrots but you do need onions.

Thinking about these delicious combinations is making me hungry, so I think I'll      turn the computer off and head for the kitchen and rustle me up some grub. Buon Apettito.
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