Be Merry / Good stuff
Putting together a Sephardic-style pot of stuffed vegetables takes time, patience, and a little skill.
Stuffed dishes evidently have been cooked in every culture, region, and era. The range of vegetables, roots, and fruit that can be stuffed is seemingly infinite: tomatoes, peppers, onions, Swiss chard, cabbage, and vine leaves, eggplants, beetroots, celery roots, carrots, artichoke hearts, dried fruit, squashes, mushrooms, and more.
The origin of stuffed dishes can be traced back to ancient Chinese cuisine, in which dumplings were stuffed with all sorts of fillings and in a variety of shapes. The Turks drew on this idea for inspiration and developed it into flavorful, colorful, and aromatic dishes. “Dolma” (from the Turkish word dolmak, meaning to fill) is a generic term for all vegetables that can be stuffed. “Sarma” (rolled in Turkish) is a catchall name for all of the rolled and stuffed dishes, such as Swiss Chard, vine leaves, and cabbage.
The exquisite taste of the Turkish stuffed dishes rapidly spread across the Levant, North Africa, and Spain. Sephardic Jews, who are excessively fond of cooked food, adopted the stuffed dishes and raised them to the level of an art. The everyday dish called medias (Ladino for half) generally contains one kind of vegetable, cut into two halves and stuffed with a tender meat filling in a lemon and garlic sauce.
The other kind − mahshi, dolma, or rellenada − is reserved for special occasions and contains an array of vegetables. Its rich taste is made up of the essence of the stuffed vegetables’ flavors. It is a diverse dish, aromatic and colorful.
The big Sephardic pot of stuffed delicacies attests to the cook’s talent and displays the hosts’ respect for the invited guests, for stuffed food symbolizes plenitude and wealth. Putting such a pot together requires time, patience, and a little skill. Generally the pot will contain small stuffed vegetables, like delicate gems. The airy filling made of rice, meat, pine nuts, and dried blueberries (zereshk). The seasoning is generous, including chopped herbs, and the sauce contains lemon, sugar, and tomatoes to create a sweet and sour harmony.
Here are the basic rules for making stuffed dishes:
The best rice for the purpose is basmati, preferably the Tilda Himshali brand. Soak it for half an hour in cold water before combining it with the rest of the filling ingredients.
Do not overstuff the filling into the vegetable. Rice expands during cooking, so leave it enough room to grow inside the vegetable.
Use a broad and flat-bottomed pot, at least 30 centimeters in diameter. Cooking in a pot that is too narrow will yield a compressed and mushy dish. Pad the bottom of the pot with tomato slices, lemon slices, or Swiss chard leaves. The stuffed vegetables are placed on this padded layer to keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. It is important to cook the stuffed vegetables in no more than two layers. On the bottom layer arrange the larger and less delicate stuffed vegetables, such as peppers, tomatoes, and onions; on the top layer arrange the smaller, more delicate ones such as zucchini and prunes.
After stuffing the vegetables and arranging them in the pot, steam them without sauce for 10 minutes, and then pour boiling sauce over them. The sauce should come up to only two-thirds of the pot’s height at the start, because the vegetables will exude a lot of liquid during the cooking.
At the start of the cooking lay a plate upside down on top of the stuffed vegetables. This will serve both to weigh them down to keep them in place and as a barrier that “traps “ the steam from the cooking in aid of steaming the rice hidden inside the vegetables.
To make sure the stuffed vegetables are shiny, evenly cooked, and separate from each other, avoid a strong boil and make do with a light and gentle bubbling (strong boiling will turn the rice to mush).
During the cooking open the pot at least twice, to baste the stuffed vegetables with the sauce juices from the bottom of the pot.
Leave the cooked dish to sit in the fridge for at least two hours, and preferably overnight. During this waiting time it will absorb the flavors from the vegetables and the cooking juices will thicken and become reduced.
Two types of peppers are suitable for stuffing: small red peppers (gambas) with a thin and sweet flesh, and light green peppers with thin and slightly bitter flesh.
For stuffed onions, choose huge onions, use a sharp knife to make a deep notch in them (unpeeled) all the way to their center, and cook them in water until softened. Once they have cooled they will be easy to peel and separate the leaves. The good leaves for stuffing are the outer ones; the inner ones are too small for the purpose. Each onion provides 4-6 good leaves for stuffing. Flatten the onion leaf on a work surface, spoon a little bit of stuffing and roll from one end to the other, pinching closed with your fingers. Arrange them in the pot with their open sides face down, so they won’t open up.
The little zucchinis (baladi), and only these, are recommended for stuffing. Any other zucchini squash will produce a watery and sub-par result. The task of emptying out the zucchini is easy when you use a zucchini corer, a long and rounded knife that is specially designed for the job. You can buy one cheaply in markets and low-end houseware stores.
The big pot of stuffed vegetables
Here is an age-old Sephardic recipe for stuffed vegetables swimming in a thick sauce that has a wonderful sweet and sour taste. I got it from my smiling Syrian aunts, and never thought of altering or upgrading it − it is so precise in its flavors that the slightest change would detract from them. Vegetarians can replace the ground beef with 3 onions, diced and fried in a little olive oil until translucent, and 2 tomatoes, peeled and diced.
Ingredients (30-32-centimeter pot):
Vegetables for stuffing:
4 small red gamba peppers or light green peppers
5 very big onions
4 medium tomatoes
8 little baladi zucchinis
15 pitted prunes
For padding the pot:
2 tablespoons Canola oil
2-3 ripe tomatoes, sliced into rounds
1 small lemon, yellow and with a thin pulp, washed, trimmed, and sliced into rounds
For the filling:
500 grams ground beef
1.5 cups basmati rice
2 tablespoons corn oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup dried blueberries
1 packed cup of fresh chopped nana mint
Chopped tomatoes (the contents of the scooped out tomatoes)
1 tablespoon pomegranate concentrate
1 tablespoon dried nana mint
For the sauce:
3 cups clear tomato juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon hot paprika
Juice of 1 lemon 2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate
1 tablespoon dried nana mint
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
3 bay leaves
8 dried apricots
5 sprigs of fresh nana mint
Soak the rice in cold water for 30 minutes, and drain.
Heat 1 liter of water in a big pot. Notch a deep cut in the unpeeled onions down to their mid-point and cook in water for 20 minutes. Cool, peel, and gently separate the onion leaves (4-6 outer leaves from each onion).
Scrape out the vegetables. Use a zucchini corer to empty the zucchinis until they are hollow cylinders with thin walls. Slice off the tomato crowns (keep the covers) and scoop out the insides with a spoon (reserve the contents for use in the stuffing). Empty the peppers, reserving the caps for covering. Use your thumb and index finger to widen the opening of the prunes and create a little pocket for stuffing.
Chop the contents of the emptied tomatoes, and transfer to a bowl. Add the remaining ingredients for the filling, and mix. Stuff the vegetables and prunes about three-quarters’ full. Put the tops back on the tomatoes and peppers.
Grease a wide pot with 2 tablespoons oil. Pad the bottom with tomato rounds and on top of that a layer of lemon slices. Arrange the stuffed vegetables close together in the following order: onions, red peppers, and tomatoes on the bottom; zucchinis and prunes on top.
Cook without sauce, uncovered, for 10 minutes on a medium fire. Bring the sauce to a boil (in the pot used to cook the onions) and pour it over the stuffed vegetables.
Garnish with dried apricots and nana mint, and lay a plate upside down on top of the stuffed vegetables. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, and then cook for 2 hours over a low flame, keeping it gently bubbling. Periodically baste the stuffed vegetables with the juices that collect at the bottom of the pot. Best served the next day.