Vegetarian Stuffed Cubanelle Peppers with Baked Rice

If you bother yourself thinking about it, there are a lot of dangers in travelling to Mexico these days. Particularly small towns in deep in the heart of the land. Between the drug warlords, the stinging fire ants, the scorpions, the scorching heat, the lack of potable water, the careless disregard for refridgeration, and not to mention confusing wastepaper baskets for toilets..... there's a lot to be concerned about. So one might ask themselves "why would anyone visit the place?"

...For these little black pearls. They were brought back from a trip to Nayarit.They look like large peppercorns, but they're not. The package says they are "Azafrán", which means "saffron" in English. But they're not saffron either. Not even close. This hard to come by spice also goes by the name of "Azafrán bolita" or "Azafrán de bolita". Far as I know, it is only cultivated in certain regions of Mexico. They may also be known as "faux saffron", as safflower products are. But they are related neither to saffron or safflower. However, like saffron, they are used to color rice (but they do not have the flavor of real saffron). Put a few pods in the boiling rice and there you go. (Like nutmeg, azafrán pods are said to be mildly hallucinogenic if eaten straight. I'm not going that route, however). First time out trying them, I'm throwing a couple in with the rice, and we'll see what's what.....

Mexico is also a country that is very fond of peppers, and it's not unusual to find them being served on the street as street fare food. They have mastered the art of stuffing peppers, and what follows is my crude interpretation of what might more or less resemble a stuffed pepper. That is, if you weren't in Mexico and didn't quite have all the ingredients or time that you needed.

The Peppers

We start this business with a few peppers, and I'm going for Cubanelle peppers. A mid-mild pepper which is perfect for this dish. But you could use any pepper you fancy. After cutting the tops off, I tried stuffing them whole, but found that didn't work too well. So I cut a slit lengthwise (without completely separating them), opened them up, and stuffed them like that.

The Stuffing

I was going to use masa harina to stuff the peppers. Which is a type of Mexican corn dough, often used to make tamales. But, it was too cold outside to get this, so I decided to make some polenta. (You might also try a stuffing of seasoned bread, such as used for turkey). Polenta is just corn meal that you cook to create a stuffing out of. The one I used was an Italian mix that had truffles in it, so it certainly provided enough flavor for the peppers. It's very easy to make. Boil about 800ml of water, tossing in a tablespoon of butter. Then slowly add about 175g of corn meal in several spurts, until all the corn meal has been added. Other recipes call for a whisk, but while I have many, I can't be bothered. A wooden spoon and some quick stirring each time you add the cornmeal is all that's needed. Stir constantly and lower the heat way down when the polenta starts to bubble and boil and spurt all over the place. Continue cooking and stirring occasionally, scraping the bottom, until it is thick and firm. (Remember, the more you cook it down, the more flavour you get). 

Finally, when the polenta is cooked, mix in about a quarter pound of your favorite grated cheese.

The Rice

Set a skillet on medium heat, add some vegetable oil (I used avocado oil, but you can use olive or other), and a chopped onion or two. I like to throw in some seasoning here (I used about a teaspoon of "Adobo seasoning with cumin") for flavour, but you can just add salt if you want. Mix the seasoning in well as the onion fries, until it starts to brown. Then add a cup of rinsed rice, stir that around, and you are ready to add water. Add enough water to cover the rice about a half inch. (Here is where I tossed in the azafrán pods!). Let the rice boil, then when most of the water over the surface has begun to evaporate, reduce to low and cook covered about 15 minutes, until tender. 

The Assembly

Cut the peppers as described above, stuff with the polenta, then place the rice in a shallow baking tray.  Place the peppers over top of that and cook in a 350F oven for an hour or so. We want the rice to be crunchy with some brown edges, the peppers to be soft and changed in color, and the stuffing to be firm. Now, dig in! Serve with salad if desired.


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