Gulf Coast Cooking

Peppers: Perfect vessels for delicious stuffing

Is there a Southern recipe as old school as stuffed bell peppers? Perhaps not, but this abiding culinary idea -- stuffing nourishing and satisfying things to eat inside a pepper and roasting it -- has been around so long simply because it is so good.

A variety of peppers can be used. Our Tex-Mex friends certainly have made a splash with their chiles rellenos and its poblano pepper, but almost any pepper will do -- red and green bell or even, on a smaller scale, jalapeños.

Other than the level of spice that the pepper provides, and a little crunch if you do not overcook it, the pepper is just the housing to keep the stuffing in place. Perhaps something can be said for the moisture the pepper casing helps retain, so let's not be completely disdainful of the poor pepper.

Now the stuffing! That's where the rubber meets the road in this recipe. In its most fundamental composition, just rice and beef or pork, something magical happens. The rice is wholesome, filling and satisfying, but add a little fatty pork and it become rich and sustaining. A hot cup of this mixture on a cold day, and life becomes hopeful again. Encase it in the nicely baked pepper, and it is transformed again. Not elegant -- stuffed and baked bell peppers will never attain those heights -- but, let's say, presentable.

Of course, there is a small world of other

things that a pepper can be stuffed with. If you are not excited about rice, try a small elbow macaroni or other pasta or even breadcrumbs. If you want something much more filling, more meatloaf-like, forgo starch altogether.

To go in a completely different direction, the recipes below can be used to stuff pasta, such as cannelloni, large shells or manicotti. That would require a red sauce to swim them in, perhaps more cheese to top them with, but the concept works just as well either way.

Some recipes call for canned or fresh tomatoes, a more assertive pepper or chili, onions, lots of garlic, red pepper flakes and fresh herbs. Remember, a recipe is just a suggestion, so if the recipes that follow leave out something you are craving, then go right ahead and add it.

BASIC BEEF-STUFFED PEPPERS

4-6 green bell peppers

1 chopped red onion

2-3 chopped red ripe tomatoes

1 cup jasmine rice

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups ground beef

1 cup cheddar cheese

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Red pepper flakes as desired

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the rice and stock in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, or use a rice cooker and steam until done, 20 minutes. Cut the tops off the bell peppers, remove the seeds and set aside. Aggressively season the beef, and then sauté in a little oil until well done. Remove from the pan, but leave some of the drippings, if your doctor allows. Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes, then add the cooked rice and tomato. Taste and re-season as necessary. Stuff the peppers with the mixture, top with cheese and bake until the peppers are tender and the cheese is melted, bubbly and hot.

PORK-STUFFED RED BELL PEPPERS

4-6 red bell peppers

1 chopped yellow onion

1 can whole tomatoes

1 pound ground pork

3-5 cloves chopped garlic

Oregano

Red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

2-3 cups elbow pasta

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the peppers in half and remove the seeds. Cook the pasta in water salted so that it tastes like the sea, and cook according to package instructions. Sauté the pork in a sauté pan until well done and starting to brown. Remove and set aside, but make sure to leave the well-seasoned fat in the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Now add the tomatoes, pork and pasta. Season aggressively, taste and season again as needed. Stuff the pepper with the mixture and bake until the peppers are tender but not overcooked.

SHRIMP-STUFFED BELL PEPPERS

4 bell peppers

1 cup rice

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups shrimp

1 small chopped red onion

1/4 cup diced ham

2-3 cloves chopped garlic

1-2 cups tomato juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the tops off the peppers and remove the seeds. Combine the rice and stock and simmer until the rice is tender. Sauté the shrimp very quickly over very high heat for 1 minute, remove and set aside. Remember to not overcrowd the pan and never, never cook cold shrimp, just out of the refrigerator. In the same pan, cook the onion in a little oil for 5 minutes, add the ham and cook until it takes on color; add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Combine the rice, shrimp, sautéed veggies, ham and tomato juice, just enough to moisten, then stuff the peppers with the mixture. Bake until the peppers are just tender, but no longer.

STUFFED JALAPENO PEPPERS

12 jalapeño peppers

12 strips best quality smoked bacon

1 cup cheddar cheese, or a smoked cheese of your choice

Slice the peppers in half and carefully remove the seeds. Remember to not touch your mouth or eyes until you have washed your hands. Make this mistake once and you will never do it again. Cook the bacon over medium low heat, just until some of the lard is rendered out. Stuff the peppers with grated cheese, wrap in the partially cooked bacon, and bake at 350 degrees until the bacon is sizzling hot and the cheese is melted.

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