I absolutely adore stuffed peppers—if Proust had madeleines, I have stuffed peppers.
It’s smelling them and instantly thinking of sunny Sundays and visiting grandparents; chasing the faint scent of the roasted skins all the way from the ground floor through three flights of stairs, across the long corridor leading to the kitchen, and then finally (finally!) digging into the strongly flavoured rice while sitting on a pile of cushions on a chair that was way too low for me… Yummmm!
Ingredients (for 2 people)
- 1 big red pepper (or 2 smaller)
- 80 grams of paella rice (or round, arborio or risotto rice)
- 160 grams of chopped tomatoes (I use canned, but fresh are also OK)
- A stalk of celery, or alternatively a bunch of green peas or something green
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 sausage, or a bit of minced meat, or a bit of drained tuna, or anything else you want to add (see note below for making this vegetarian)
- olive oil
- Optional: a few parsley leaves
- Optional: colorante alimentario AKA food colouring, or alternatively saffron (if you’re feeling fancy)
For the best results, get yourself the biggest and straightest red peppers you can find (as that facilitates everything).
- curved peppers, because they’re just trouble.
- also the small bell peppers you get in packs of three in supermarkets, they are way too small and either tend to taste of nothing or are too sour.
- and sweet romano peppers, they’re too narrow to be practical.
You will also need:
- A medium sized pan to cook the tomato, etc.
- An oven
- An oven-proof dish
- Kitchen foil
Start by turning the oven on to 200ºC, as it’ll take time to warm up—you can cook meanwhile!
Then wash the pepper(s), and carefully carve out a “lid” by cutting around the stalk. Pull out the lid when you complete the circle, then cut out the bottom of the lid to remove the seeds and make it flat. Don’t throw the lid away, as we’ll need it later!
Also peel the garlic cloves, and set them aside.
Wash the celery stalk, chop off any hard ends.
And chop into bite sized slices!
If you don’t have celery at hand, feel free to prepare some other green vegetable that you have handy. It can be green peas, fine beans, etc.
If you’re using a sausage, cut it into bite sized pieces too.
Add some oil to a hot pan, and then add the sausage or meat if using to pan fry.
When the sausage is starting to be almost cooked and browning at places, add the celery or greens. Cook on a medium heat until they soften.
In the meantime, weigh out the tomatoes and rice. I’m aiming for 160 grams, because I intend to use 80 grams of rice (the proportion I’m going for is 2 grams of tomato per gram of rice). If you get more or less tomatoes, adjust the amount of rice accordingly.
Here are my measured tomatoes and rice:
As you can see, there’s not a lot of either of them!
Add the tomatoes and the peeled garlic cloves to the pan when the celery (or your greens) have softened. Add a pinch of salt too:
When the tomato reduces, check for salt and adjust if needed. Then add the rice to the pan:
Also add about half a teaspoon of paprika, and the food colouring or saffron if you want to. In this case I didn’t, so all the colouring comes from the paprika and the tomatoes.
Stir well to coat the rice in the sauce and distribute it evenly. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting.
Let the rice slowly warm up in the pan and in the meantime prepare the parsley, if you’re using it. It is optional, but it gives a nice flavour to the dish.
Wash a few leaves, removing any hard bits:
And add them to the pan too!
Stir around (mostly so they soften and “blend” into the mix). Turn the heat off.
Now comes the tricky part, which can be a bit challenging the first time you do it: stuffing the pepper with the rice!
Hold the pepper vertically above the pan (so if things fall out, they fall back into the pan!). Scoop out rice with a spoon and put it in the pepper.
You might understand now why the straighter and wider the peppers, the easier it is to complete this process!
If the stuffing is not quite “flowing” into the pepper, you might want to give a gentle shake to the pepper so the contents settle. You can also softly push the contents down with the spoon.
Given we did not measure the volume of the pepper, it’s quite likely that there’s a bit less rice than it would take to fully stuff it. That’s fine—it’s better to have a bit less than to have a bit more! And you see now why we cut out the seeds under the lid, so we could have more space for the rice.
Now place the lid back in the pepper, and carefully place the pepper on the counter.
Cut a piece of kitchen foil, enough to generously cover the pepper so the skin does not burn before the rice has fully cooked, but don’t double wrap it, as we need to inspect the peppers half-way through cooking to decide how much longer to bake for, and it’s better if it’s easy to inspect. No one likes dealing with flimsy foil around a piece of very hot pepper…
All wrapped, place the pepper(s) on the oven-proof tray, with the foil seam on top (so you can “open” the package for inspection).
Bake at 200ºC for an hour, then reduce to about 180ºC, and keep baking for about 30 to 45 minutes more.
How much longer? You want the pepper to be nicely roasted, so the skin becomes wrinkled and soft, almost falling apart.
This is why we want to be able to look at the pepper and see how it’s going, and perhaps cover it back with the foil if it’s not done yet.
I advise you to have a first look after the first hour, then at intervals of 15 minutes or so. But I often just guide myself by the nose—when it smells so much of roasted peppers, you know it’s time!
And so here’s the pepper I cooked.
I reckon it could have been cooked for a little longer, as the skin wasn’t all charred and falling apart yet, but this was good already.
If you only have one pepper, you can slice it in two to reveal its glorious contents, then serve in two plates.
Otherwise serve one pepper per plate and enjoy 😋
Note that some people might find eating a whole pepper a bit indigestible so they might peel the skin (if the pepper is quite cooked, the outer layer can be removed) or leave the skin aside entirely. Don’t throw it away! You can use it for other things, such an esgarraet (I don’t have a recipe yet, but it’s a cold sauce with roasted peppers, aubergines, tomatoes garlic and olive oil).
Another thing I want to highlight here is how the rice has absorbed the water from the tomato and it’s not hard and dry anymore—it’s properly plump and cooked, but not TOO cooked, as the grains aren’t exploded. This is the ideal you should aim for!
What if you have way more stuffing than space in the pepper(s)?
Occasionally I might miscalculate and the peppers will turn out to be too small for the amount of rice I prepared. My solution is to add a splash of water, put a lid on the pan, turn the heat on, cook the rice and eat it! (Maybe even straight from the pan, standing in front of the cooker).
More often than not you’ll be finished with this way before the peppers have finished baking, so no one will ever know that this happened 😂
I promise not to tell anyone!
Alternative: cooking with a pressure cooker
It is also possible to cook the peppers in a pressure cooker.
While it reduces the cooking time, they don’t get the same charred flavour (which is possibly the thing I like the most). I’ve also found it hard to nail the amount of water they need—mine always come out watery!
Maybe I need to ask my aunt to confirm the recipe: she had four children and no time to waste, so she is a supreme pressure cooker ambassador!
Alternative: a vegetarian version?
I’ve always eaten non-vegetarian versions of this, and I still haven’t come up with a good vegetarian recipe, but I’m having ideas:
Without resorting to tofu, which would be very out of character for the region, we could use chickpeas (perhaps slightly roasted) and/or big white beans instead. Mushrooms and an extra of garlic, paprika and pepper could be an interesting addition too, to add that umami je ne sais quoi.
We would also need some extra fat, as the meat that you normally add in here is quite fatty (or has oils, like canned tuna). So maybe an extra dash of olive oil could be needed.
Something for my to-do list! 📝
Where can I eat this in Spain?
This dish is a bit of secret (or maybe not anymore after this post!).
If you ask people in Spain about “stuffed peppers” they probably would think of peppers stuffed with everything but rice: meat, fish, cheese, vegetables…
You might even find it hard to find them in restaurants in Valencia, unless they’re aiming for “the regional twist” or are rice specialists.
This is because this is more typical of the towns around the border between the provinces of Valencia and Alicante, e.g. in the Serra de Mariola area.
Interestingly, I’ve also known people from other regions such as Teruel (in Aragón, about 200 km away) who also cooked this, although with some unexpected twists: they used Frankfurt sausages and added cubes of cheese! 🤪 While it was “interesting” to eat, it kind of confused my taste buds, so I haven’t repeated it.
Of course, it would not be a proper regional dish without some disagreement about its origin. People from Alcoi (Alicante) say they are the originators, while people from nearby Cocentaina say exactly the same. In the meantime, people from the coastal town of Oliva (Valencia) also say they are the creators…
Old-age rivalry between comarcas strikes again! 😆