Traveling the world through cuisine

Go beyond the resolution list

It’s that time again.

The Holiday Season is over, you’ve already put away the decorations (or plan to), and you’re possibly set into 2016 with your list of New Year's Resolutions. The usual bunch you might make every year to exercise more, eat healthy, have more fun, learn something new, etc.

Of course you know that sometime between now and St Patrick’s Day you’ll pretty much abandon every resolution on that list. Sorry to be negative, but I speak from experience with several expired gym memberships in my past, and some foreign language learning materials I have not touched since purchasing them.

When it comes to diets, I’ve never been a fan. I don’t care if it’s some trendy fad celebrities are embracing, or the traditional regime of bland, unimaginative food that’s low in calories. Healthy eating should not be “torture” or some unpleasant experience. It should be a happy lifestyle...a way of living that you keep with you forever.

Personally, I’ve found the big trick to staying dedicated to this lifestyle is to build flavor in the foods that are good for you. It’s one of the primary reasons why I embraced cooking so many years ago. I just think that healthy food doesn’t have to be boring, or flavorless...and you don’t need to load up a dish with fat, salt, or sugar to make it tasty.

The Islands of the Northern Aegean

The Aegean Sea spans the watery space between Greece and Turkey, and is home to thousands of islands. While tourists generally flock to southern mainstays like Mykonos and Santorini, northern islands like Samos, Chios, and Lesbos remain relatively untouched by the trappings of tourism....mainly due to short summers and high winds.

Despite the lack of tourism, these islands make up with a thriving fishing industry. However, most of the seafood caught by local fishermen end up sold to restaurants and other lucrative catering enterprises, thus the residents live mainly on a plant-based diet. We outside of Greece know this as the infamous Mediterranean Diet.

The Mediterranean Diet shouldn’t be anything new to you, but I’ve always found it as my mainstay for healthy eating. Granted many cuisines around the world offer loads of healthy options, but I still think the fresh, light foods of Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and parts of Northern Africa are a wonderful starting point for many seeking to embrace a lifestyle of healthy eating.

For the islanders, it’s mainly about freshly prepared foods consisting of what they have on hand, which is mainly vegetables. Long hours in the kitchen are not preferred, so they create simpler dishes that can be quickly prepared and even sit well as leftovers. The saved time can then be spent in slow, laid-back meals and enjoying the leisure time they have.

So let’s start your 2016 lifestyle change with a simple dish rooted in those Greek islands. In the native tongue, it’s called Yemistés Piperiés (“yem-me-stays peep-peh-yez”), but we all know this more as stuffed peppers.

Stuffed peppers are not entirely a Greek thing, as many cultures around the world have their own variants of this idea. Many Americans might know them more as peppers stuffed with a combination of rice, meat, cheese, and herbs, but you’re not limited there. The term Yemistá really just means “filled”, so you’re pretty open on what you choose to make your stuffing with. For instance, I showed you how to stuff them with chicken years ago.

In Greece, traditional stuffed peppers are usually vegetarian. They use a combination of rice, onion, tomatoes, and fresh herbs to create a light meal that works freshly baked or even cold as leftovers. Meat can be used, but again in those regions, it’s more a luxury. What I found the most fascinating was the usage of fresh mint in the stuffing, thus showing some of that Turkish influence on the cuisine.

Here’s how we do it:

Traditional Stuffed Peppers

Traditional Stuffed Peppers

Ingredients

  • 8-10 large bell peppers
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil plus extra
  • 3 small onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup of fresh parsley minced
  • 1/2 cup of fresh dill, minced
  • 1/4 cup of fresh mint, minced
  • 2 cups of rice, cooked
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) of diced tomatoes
  • 1 can (6 oz) of tomato paste
  • 2 cups of water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°. Set up a deep baking dish or pan to use.
  2. Wash and prepare the peppers. Cut off the tops to make lids, and remove all the seeds from the inside.
  3. In a stock pot or large sauté pan, heat up the olive oil on medium heat.
  4. Place the onions and garlic into the oil, cooking them until the onions soften.
  5. Add in the dill, parsley, mint, and rice, stirring it all up.
  6. Continue cooking until the mixture is hot.
  7. Mix in the diced tomatoes and tomato paste.
  8. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, then cook for a few more minutes.
  9. Remove the filling from the heat.
  10. Spoon the rice mixture into the peppers, filling them completely with just a little room to place the lid back on.
  11. Place the stuffed peppers into the baking dish or pan, then pour the water over them.
  12. Drizzle the peppers with some more olive oil.
  13. Bake the peppers until they are tender.

Quick Notes

When prepping the peppers, cut at an inward, downward angle. The lid will stay on top as opposed to falling into the pepper.

If a pepper won't stand on its own (and it's important to you), then cut a little bit off the bottom so make it sit level.

If you end up with more flling than peppers, just make a cup out of aluminum foil and cook it with the peppers.

Variations

You can really variate any way you like. If you wish to bring meat into this dish, just add one pound of ground beef or lamb to the recipe. You're best to brown the meat after the onion and garlic, then continue on.

Serving Suggestions

Best to serve these peppers with some grated cheese. Zwieback is a local favorite, but parmesean or romano works nicely.

With all the potential of what you could stuff into a bell pepper, I wanted to try something beyond what I knew as traditional. Zuzana has been a big fan of quinoa for quite some time, so I attempted to create a stuffed pepper substituting quinoa for the rice, and flavoring it more akin to her native Slovakia. For those looking to add more protein to their diet without added fat, this is a real winner.

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

Ingredients

  • 2-3 bell peppers
  • 1 cup of quinoa
  • 2 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp of oil plus extra
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp of Vegeta
  • 1 tsp of paprika
  • 2 tsp of marjoram
  • 1/4 cup of fresh parsley, minced
  • 1 cup of water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. On your stovetop, bring the chicken broth to a boil using a small saucepan.
  2. Place the quinoa into the broth.
  3. Bring the broth to boil again, then lower and simmer until the quinoa is fully cooked.
  4. Preheat your oven to 350°. Set up a deep baking dish or pan to use.
  5. Wash and prepare the peppers. Cut off the tops to make lids, and remove all the seeds from the inside.
  6. In a stock pot or large sauté pan, heat up the olive oil on medium heat.
  7. Place the onions and garlic into the oil, cooking them until the onions soften.
  8. Add in the quinoa, Vegeta, paprika, marjoram, and parsley, stirring it all up.
  9. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, then cook for a few more minutes.
  10. Remove the filling from the heat.
  11. Spoon the quinoa mixture into the peppers, filling them completely with just a little room to place the lid back on.
  12. Place the stuffed peppers into the baking dish or pan, then pour the water over them.
  13. Drizzle the peppers with some more olive oil.
  14. Bake the peppers until they are tender.

Quick Notes

When prepping the peppers, cut at an inward, downward angle. The lid will stay on top as opposed to falling into the pepper.

If a pepper won't stand on its own (and it's important to you), then cut a little bit off the bottom so make it sit level.

If you end up with more flling than peppers, just make a cup out of aluminum foil and cook it with the peppers.

Vegeta is a blend of dried vegetables and seasonings found mostly in the ethnic sections of grocery stores or anywhere you can buy imported goods from Central Europe. If you can’t find Vegeta in your neck of the woods, then check the spices aisle for a “21 Seasoning Mix”, which is similar.  I would forewarn though to be careful on how much you use, because it can make a dish very salty.

Tags: Greek, Slovak, peppers, stuffed, vegetable

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