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A Loaded Pepper

September 16, 1993|FAYE LEVY

At the end of summer and beginning of fall, many of us feel the urge to cook again as the summer heat abates and we start to crave more substantial meals. A perfect choice for an attractive dinner entree is stuffed peppers, made from the various colored peppers now widely available. Eating a pepper and its stuffing together is a gratifying taste sensation as they lend flavor and aroma to each other.

Stuffed peppers are practical for those of us with busy schedules. They make economical, satisfying entrees, yet can also be used as appetizers or side dishes. Depending on the pepper's size, one or two whole stuffed peppers can be served as a main course, while half a pepper would be an appetizer or side dish. Many home cooks prepare enough for two meals, as the peppers reheat well in a low-temperature oven or microwave. Peppers with vegetarian fillings also taste good at room temperature.

Peppers are the easiest vegetable to stuff. There is no need to cut away any vegetable pulp to hollow out the vegetable--as when stuffing zucchini or tomatoes--or to precook it--as when stuffing onions or eggplant. You simply cut a slice off the top of the pepper, remove the core and seeds, spoon in the stuffing and bake.

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In eastern Mediterranean and Balkan countries, stuffed peppers are time-honored favorites served for holidays and other celebrations. The best-loved filling is an aromatic mixture of ground beef or lamb flavored with garlic, pepper and sometimes cilantro and cumin. Vegetarian versions are frequently made of rice and vegetables, as in stuffed peppers with rice, pine nuts and currants. In Turkey, the rice and onion stuffing is accented with allspice and mint. Instead of rice, both vegetarian and meat stuffings can be based on bread crumbs, bulgur wheat or couscous. For a festive touch, some people throw in a few raisins or sauteed walnuts or almonds.

The stuffed peppers are served on their own or are accompanied by a light tomato sauce or a spoonful of yogurt.

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These stuffed peppers gain their distinctive taste from fresh hot pepper, cilantro, cumin and turmeric. The rice is partially cooked and finishes cooking inside the peppers.

SPICY MEAT-STUFFED PEPPERS 1/2 cup long-grain rice, rinsed and drained Water 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1/2 pound lean or extra-lean ground beef or lamb 1 to 2 jalapeno chiles, seeded, minced 1 medium clove garlic, minced 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 5 to 6 sweet red or green peppers 1 tablespoon tomato paste

Boil rice in saucepan with 3 cups boiling salted water, about 10 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in skillet. Add onion and cook over low heat until tender, about 7 minutes. Let cool. Mix with beef, jalapenos, garlic, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper.

Cut slice off stem end of peppers and reserve. Remove stem, core and seeds. Spoon stuffing into whole peppers and cover with reserved slices. Stand peppers in baking dish in which they just fit.

Mix tomato paste with 1/4 cup water and spoon mixture over peppers. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees about 1 hour or until very tender. Makes 5 to 6 servings.

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Rice with pine nuts and a hint of sweetness from dried fruit makes a festive filling for peppers. In traditional versions of this Turkish recipe, a very generous amount of oil is used. This is a lighter rendition with much less oil, yet it is still rich in flavor.

STUFFED PEPPERS WITH RICE, PINE NUTS AND CURRANTS 5 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin 3 medium onions, finely chopped 3/4 cup long-grain white rice 1/4 cup pine nuts 2 tablespoons currants or raisins 2 plum tomatoes, chopped 2 teaspoons dried mint 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/2 teaspoon sugar Salt Freshly ground black pepper Water 6 to 7 small sweet red, green or yellow peppers Lemon wedges, optional

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in skillet. Add onions and saute over medium heat 10 minutes. Add rice and pine nuts and cook and stir 5 minutes over low heat. Add currants, tomatoes, mint, allspice, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Cook 2 minutes. Add 1 1/4 cups water and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat about 12 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Rice will not be fully cooked.

Cut slice off stem end of each pepper. Reserve slice, leaving stem on. Remove core and seeds from inside of peppers. Spoon stuffing into peppers and cover with reserved slices. Stand peppers in baking dish in which they just fit. Add 1 1/2 cups hot water to dish. Sprinkle peppers with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees about 1 hour or until peppers are tender. Serve hot or cold, with lemon wedges. Makes 6 to 7 servings.

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