Apparently, stuffed bell peppers were a staple meal around many-a-household for folks of my generation. Hubs has mentioned his mom’s beefy, rice-laden peppers on a handful of occasions, and several other friends have mentioned their mom’s same go-to dish; it seems everyone remembers the dish well, but hardly anyone remembers it with much fondness or sentiment: the flavorless rice, the greasy ground meat, the still-crunchy bell pepper – and no wonder! The stuffed pepper trend never made it to my parents’ house (perhaps this is a good thing?), but I brought it to our house last weekend. A revamped, updated version, of course: stuffed peppers 2.0!
Our CSA share is evolving with the season, and the latest share was full of beautiful little sweet peppers of varying shapes and sizes. Some were a crisp, light green and others were darker and bolder; some were long and skinny and others were short and gnarly. Along with the peppers were a couple of zucchini, yellow squash, some cute baby leeks and an entire paper sack full of okra (which I’ll touch on more next week). My garden’s tomato plants are still in full swing, churning out plump, vine-ripened tomatoes daily. We’re really suffering around here. Can’t you tell?
Per usual, I didn’t want to stick to the traditional rice and ground beef stuffing – my goal was to use all of the vegetables in our CSA share, plus some from our garden, then round it out with a starch and beef it up with a ground meat (pun intended) for my essentially carnivorous husband. Challenging? Nah. Colorful? Yeah. Lots of chopping required? You betcha.
I mulled through the grain choices in my kitchen cabinet, passing on the quinoa, bulgur and brown rice, and finally picked orzo as the starchy star of the stuffing. For the few who don’t know, orzo is a small, rice-shaped pasta that’s used in many pasta salads and is very versatile. I used ground turkey instead of the traditional ground beef for a lighter twist. (There will forever be a meat dispute around our house. I could go pescatarian tomorrow, while Hubs would shrivel and wilt if we didn’t eat fowl or mammal at least three times a week. Marriage. It’s all about compromise. Insert snarky face here.)
To spice up the filling, I added some oregano, a little allspice and a lot-more-than-a-little cayenne – don’t worry, I lessened the amount of cayenne in the final recipe for those who don’t like smoke pouring out their ears. You’ll also see that I didn’t include baby leeks in the final recipe. Never in my 30 years have I seen baby leeks at any major grocery store, so I won’t send you searching high and low for the little buggers; a chopped onion will do perfectly fine. One more side note: if you don’t have fresh tomatoes lying around your house, feel free to use a can of diced tomatoes instead. No shame, no problem.
The peppers were topped off by crumbling a crunchy, panko-cheese mixture over the stuffing, drizzling it all with some extra virgin olive oil (to this day I refuse to use the term EVOO – I’ll take the extra three seconds to type it out, thanks) and throwing the whole shebang in the oven for about 20 minutes. The veggies add a fresh flavor, the orzo adds a nice texture and the cheese unites all the ingredients in an oh-so-creamy way. Blanching the peppers helped to retain their integrity, while softening them enough to make them pleasantly palatable. Try this 21st century version of a dish that used to be “sooo last century”. Enjoy!
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Orzo Stuffed Peppers
6 small-medium peppers, or 3 large
12 oz. ground turkey
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 small yellow squash, diced
1 small zucchini, diced
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. cayenne
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
(or an 8 oz. can of diced tomatoes)
1/3 c. orzo
1/2 cup water
1 cup shredded cheese
salt & pepper to taste
For the topping:
1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs
1/2 c. shredded cheese
Heat the oven to 375°. Heat a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Halve the peppers lengthwise and remove the stem, seeds and ribs. Immerse the halved peppers in the boiling water for three minutes. Remove the peppers from the water, pat dry on a paper towel and sprinkle the insides with salt and pepper. Allow peppers to rest on the paper towel.
In a large skillet, cook the turkey and onion together until the meat is brown and the onion is tender. Add the squash and zucchini and cook for three minutes longer, until they begin to soften. Add the oregano, allspice and cayenne and stir until the spices become fragrant. Add the tomatoes (and all their juices) and the orzo, stirring to combine. Add the ½ cup of water, cover the skillet and cook over medium-low heat for seven or eight minutes, until the orzo is cooked through. Fold in the cup of shredded cheese, and add salt and pepper to taste.
In a medium bowl, combine the panko breadcrumbs and the 1/2 cup of shredded cheese. Using your fingers, gently press the breadcrumbs and cheese together until they are crumbly and combined.
Place the peppers in a large baking dish and fill each pepper with the orzo filling. Top the peppers with the panko cheese mixture, and drizzle the topping of each pepper with a little olive oil. (If you have any remaining orzo filling, place it in between the peppers in the baking dish.) Bake for 20 minutes, or until the peppers are heated through and the topping is browned. Let stand two minutes before serving.
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Laura Hobbs is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more of Laura’s contributions, see her author page or visit Flyer Foodie on Facebook.