My friend Julian once told me that I was a good cook but that I always have to put a thing inside a thing. This was either a veiled suggestion that I should retreat to a monastery in the hills and live an ascetic & celibate life or a comment on my culinary habits.
He told me that in Croatia, in blazing sunshine and under the influence of the 70% raki we were given (I assume) to strip any paint that might have developed in our throats overnight. At 10am. It was either that or the totally delectable honeyed liquor Medica, which is like mead but from the Balkans and therefore heinously strong.
Nonetheless, Oxford’s favourite pink Gingham’d pianist had a point. I do harbour a real love for self-contained dishes, be they wraps, burgers, tarts or – as in this case – merely one thing stuffed inside another.
Obviously the paradigm of the thing stuffed inside the thing is the thing stuffed inside the thing stuffed inside the thing, or the famous gooducken in which a duck is stuffed inside a chicken and the chicken is then stuffed inside a goose before the whole lot is roasted. Now, I’m all for conspicuous consumption of birds because I don’t trust the little bastards but I recognise that on an average day it might not be entirely appropriate.*
So, to try to mollify the pain of that horrible grown-up realisation, let’s just stuff some bloody delicious vegetables full of good things. These are a lunch on their own but I guess if you’re serving them to people it’d make sense to make a little bit of salad. These quantities will serve about four.
I was going to make a pun but then I remembered my mum reads this and felt ashamed. Let’s just eat, guys.
Stuffed Romano Peppers
- Romano peppers. They’re the long, thin ones. One per person, or two if they’re greedy people.
- Brown rice. I’m terrible at measuring rice, but probably about a third of an average sized mug per pepper. It’s not a disaster if you’re a bit off.
- Vegetable stock cube or 1 pint liquid stock
- 200g Pancetta or smoked bacon, roughly chopped
- Two white onions, roughly chopped
- Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- One green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
- 5-6 button mushrooms, sliced
- Half of one aubergine, skin off and diced
- Balsamic vinegar
- A little butter
- Toasted pine nuts (optional but tasty)
Do the fiddly bit first. Take each romano pepper and carefully push the stalk down (whilst holding onto it) until it comes free. Take the stalk and, hopefully, most of the seeds out and discard. Rinse the inside of each pepper and make sure you get all the water and seeds out. Heat the grill.
Heat a little olive oil in the bottom of a saucepan and add the rice, tossing and stirring until each grain is coated in oil. Pour over boiling water (or stock) until the rice is submerged by about two inches. Add the stock cube if using that instead of liquid stock and allow to boil until the water is almost soaked up. Taste and cover with water again if not soft. Don’t overcook until it’s like rice pudding though. That is firstly gross and secondly completely useless for the purposes of this dish. There should still be a little bit of bite. Drain and allow to cool.
Heat a sizeable glug of oil over a medium heat and fry the pancetta, onions, garlic, chilli, rosemary and thyme in a fairly deep pan. When the onions are softening and the white fat on the pancetta is starting to colour, add your vegetables, seasoning and a splash of balsamic. Fry for a few more minutes, or until the veggies are just starting to take on a little colour, before adding the rice and quickly mixing everything together. Remove from the pan before the rice starts sticking to the bottom.
On a baking dish or grill pan, very carefully spoon the rice mixture into the peppers and pack down tightly so it doesn’t all fall out when the peppers are grilled on their sides. Tuck a little knob of butter inside each. Lightly brush the outside of each pepper with olive oil, season and grill for about ten minutes, turning once one side is charring and blistered.
Eat hot. For me, this is a dish that cries out for Beaujolais or Shiraz, though the litre bottles of Croatian Litovec lager we were drinking at the time seemed perfect too. I guess knives and forks would be polite, but hands and a spoon will do the job nicely.
* Don’t actually eat birds every day because free range farms won’t be able to cope if we all do. I don’t like birds when they’re alive that much, but the same applies to Eamonn Holmes and I don’t want him locked in a cage and forced to shit through a tube.