Armenian Stuffed Vegetables
- Any combination of vegetables that can be stuffed. I use mammoth zucchini, standard eggplants, large Italian Sweet peppers if they can be had from a local garden and/or standard green bell peppers from the market.
- 1-2 pounds of LEAN ground round
- uncooked white rice
- dried minced onion or grated fresh yellow or red onion
- dried basil
- one small zucchini (optional)
- tomato sauce
So you may notice the list of ingredients is a bit vague as to quantities. That is deliberate as I vary the amount of meat depending on the vegetables on hand and the crowd I mean to serve. This is more a method than a recipe per se. Here are the ratios I use when mixing the meat: for each pound of ground beef use 1 teaspoon of salt, 1-2 tablespoons onion to taste, 1-2 tablespoons basil to taste and 1/3-1/2 cup rice also to taste and texture preference. As with any recipe that adds filler (the rice) to ground meat, I believe the original intent was to stretch of a small amount expensive meat to feed a large and hungry family by adding much less expensive grain products to increase bulk. That being said, I think there is a sweet spot for the amount of rice to meat that falls in the ratio I’ve given.
Mix the filling ingredients together well: the meat, rice, onion, basil and salt and a little water. 2-3 tablespoons water should be about right. The water helps everything to blend together well. Knead this mixture with your hands in a large bowl as you would bread dough until everything is uniformly distributed and the meat and rice hang together well. Set aside.
Now for the fun part: prepare the vegetables. Get out a large stock pot roomy enough to accept the vegetables in a single layer if possible. Wash all the vegetables and begin with the peppers if you are using them. Just cut off the tops of the peppers and remove and discard any membranes and seeds left inside. Any good trimmings of flesh from the pepper top can be removed from the stem and tossed in the bottom of the pot. This leaves you with a nice empty pepper cup to receive the meat. Zucchini and eggplant next. The pictures show eggplant because I made this batch in winter and eggplant is available all winter long in supermarkets but the method applies equally to the mammoth zukes:
First, trim the ends and slice the eggplant in to workable sections, about 4-5 inches long:
Next, use a coring tool to hollow out a cylindrical void in the center. With zucchini, you can actually see a demarcation between the soft center where the seeds are forming and the more solid walls and that enables you to easily remove the core and leave about a 3/8 to 1/2″ wall of good solid flesh. With eggplants, the flesh is uniform consistency all the way to the skin so you have to judge when to stop removing flesh. Eggplants are a little softer so, you want to leave 1/2-3/4″ all around the edge as uniformly as you can:
Any flesh removed gets tossed in to the bottom of the pot. When you have prepped all the vegetables, begin stuffing the meat in to the cavities. The rice will swell but the flesh will shrink as it loses water so everything evens out but you don’t want to over stuff the vegetables. It’s best to turn the vegetables on their sides for cooking but if you don’t have room in your pot, arrange them any way you can make them fit. Bell peppers should not be upside down or the meat will fall right out. If you have too much meat for the vegetables, form large oval-shaped meatballs and drop them in on top of the vegetables. Children will eat this dish if you tell them they can have all the meatballs and don’t need to eat the vegetables.
Add tomato sauce. For this batch, which is 4 bell peppers and 2 eggplants, I started with 1 1/2 pounds of ground round and used 2 small cans of tomato sauce. Also, when I don’t have zucchini large enough to stuff and/or I’m using only peppers, I slice a small zucchini in to the pot as they are also available year ’round in supermarkets. The zucchini and eggplant will release enough water from their flesh for the rice to absorb in cooking and then some. Bell peppers will not release much water so if you are only using peppers and don’t have zucchini, you should add a little water with the tomato sauce. You can see below that I’ve turned the peppers and 2 of the eggplants on their sides. That is ideal, but the other 2 eggplants just wouldn’t fit so they are upright.
Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cover and reduce heat to maintain a strong simmer. Simmer for a minimum of 2 hours, maximum of 3 hours, reducing heat as needed to maintain the simmer but not burn the vegetables. About half way through the cooking time, remove the lid and carefully shift and turn the vegetables with 2 large spoons so that they cook evenly. You can do this a few times as needed, and it’s especially important if you’ve had to stack the vegetables in the pot but don’t do it too often as it slows the cooking. If you’ve been able to place everything on its side, you should only have to turn them once.
Serve with rice or bulgur pilaf, pida or other soft bread to soak up the sauce and if you want to be very traditional, a savory yogurt sauce with garlic and salt provides a nice complement.