In olden times, it was the women who picked the freshest vegetables, scooped out their hearts and placed the empty peels in a bowl of cold water. Then they would trim the lamb of fat and tendons, chop it with a sharp knife, season and knead it. Finally, they took soft handfuls of the mix and with starchy fingers filled the vegetables.
When the men returned from the fields, they found whole vegetables simmering in a large pot and the fragrance of a meat stew in the air. They left their tools by the door, washed up and sat down at the table. Before them, resting on white rice, was a beet, a radish, a squash or a turnip exuding thick sauce. With a stroke of the knife, they split the vegetables open, getting to the center of the meat filling and letting the juices spill out.
The women had given the vegetables a new heart, as if placing their own hearts there, and the men received them as a sacrifice. As long as the kitchen was mainly a female domain, in the villages and out in the country, the dishes were prepared with patience, love and dedication that was like a warm embrace for the children and their fathers. When men came into the kitchen, they broke down the foods their mothers had cooked and defiantly dished them up as a call of courtship or of battle. They grilled the meat over coals, ate the vegetables raw and baked bread in their ovens until the crust hardened. The women prepared their foods for the men, and so did the men.
Vegetables filled with meat are not just meatballs crammed into a coating. Stuffed vegetables are a favorite in many ethnic cuisines due to the perfect balance between the thickness of the vegetable and the amount of filling, the meat’s texture and the way it adheres to its container, and the precise cooking of each element. The variations are too numerous to count, but there are several rules to keep in mind when striving for the perfect stuffed vegetable.
Nearly any vegetable is suitable for filling when it is as freshly picked as possible and still a little sweet, with the juices still trapped inside. Vegetables that have been refrigerated for extended periods tend to get limp and turn bitter. The peel shrivels up and, at best, they may be used for soup. For stuffing, it’s best to use meaty vegetables with an edible peel. This includes root vegetables like beets, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, carrots and potatoes; squashes like zucchini, pumpkin, acorn squash, etc; hollow vegetables like peppers, and even celery stalks. Rinse the vegetables well and remove any residual bits of dirt from around the stalks or roots, but keep them whole and attached to their stems.
Scooping out the vegetables:
Some people cut the tops off the vegetables, then use them as a cover after filling with meat. I prefer to remove a thin layer from the side, scoop out some of the vegetable and fill it with meat that is left open to the heat and the sauce, so the cooking juices are absorbed and attach the filling to the vegetable that encloses it. To scoop out the vegetables, use a Parisienne scoop (also called a melon baller), which comes in different sizes. It is made of sharp metal and shaped like a half-sphere. Insert it halfway into the vegetable and use a circular motion to scoop out the inside. Repeat with gentle motions in a circle or straight line, depending on the shape of the vegetable, making sure to retain a thick outer layer. In vegetables with soft seeds, like the zucchini or cucumber, remove just the portion with the seeds, and leave the rest. When scooping out root vegetables, be careful not to get too close to the root or the stalk, so as not to lose the shape.
When filling vegetables with meat, you must use fresh meat, since meat that has been frozen and then thawed gives off too much liquid and then becomes dry and shriveled when cooked. Use relatively lean cuts that have been chopped either fine or medium-fine. If the meat is too fatty, when the fat dissolves during cooking, the shape will be altered and the meat will detach from the vegetable. Different kinds of meat can be mixed together, such as ground beef with liver or chicken. I add one egg per half-kilo of ground meat. This is not absolutely necessary, but the egg adds some softness and pliancy to the texture and helps the meat stick to the sides of the vegetable. Mix the seasonings in well while being careful not to overdo it so the texture of the meat is not adversely affected.
The meat acquires its flavor from three types of seasoning: dry spices like salt and pepper, sweet and hot paprika, baharat (a spice mixture used in Arab cuisine), nutmeg, cumin, turmeric and so on; fresh chopped herbs or nuts like pistachio, peanuts, parsley, mint, thyme or rosemary; and moist or cooked seasonings like fried onion or chopped garlic, tomato sauce, olive oil or lemon. Meat that is well seasoned will maintain its flavor but combine well with the flavors of the vegetables and sauce.
Before putting in the filling, dry the insides of the vegetables well, sprinkle with salt and a light dusting of flour. The flour helps the meat adhere to the sides and softens the transition from filling to vegetable. Put the meat in gently, filling the entire space and using your hand to smooth it out. Don’t press the meat too hard, because you want the cooking juices to be able to easily penetrate it.
There are different schools of thought here. Some cooks bake the stuffed vegetables in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes until they soften a little, then pour on all the sauce and continue baking for another 30 minutes, until the meat absorbs the roasting juices. Others simmer the vegetables in a pot with a thick sauce that just covers them until they soften and the meat is cooked. I prefer the method that is used in making mafrum, Libyan stuffed potatoes: First dredge the stuffed vegetables in flour and shake off the excess, dip in a beaten egg that has been seasoned with salt and pepper, then deep fry them briefly. This sears the skin of the vegetable and seals the meat filling. Transfer to a pan with sauce and place in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Celsius for half an hour. The brief frying with the flour and egg coating adds another layer and a delicate texture that takes in the sauce and makes all the flavors cohere.
You can make a tomato sauce with tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, spices, lemon juice and water. If baking the vegetables in the oven, they should be deep enough in sauce to cover the part containing the meat filling. I usually prefer to make a sauce with half a cup of lemon juice and four tablespoons of flour, simmering them over low heat until they are smoothly combined with no lumps. Then pour on two cups of vegetable stock and stir vigorously until you have a light, tangy sauce. Pour this over the vegetables and let it reduce and thicken in the oven. Pour a little of the sauce over the stuffed vegetables right before serving. Alternatively, you can use a rich stock or white wine that will evaporate in the oven and lend its flavor to the vegetables.