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The No-Recipe Stuffed Vegetable Formula to Embrace All Fall

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In a time of year when days and months are so busy they fly by at an alarming pace while holidays creep closer by the day, the old "protein, starch, and green" formula might get shoved aside in favor of, say, a frozen burrito or ordering takeout. No shade towards frozen burritos, but if you want to make a "balanced" dinner happen, tonight, there is a solution: stuffed vegetables.

Stuffed vegetables are an all-in-one miracle meal, checking the boxes for starch, protein, and greens, in a single, edible package. They are your healthy, leftover-friendly support system when things get a bit hectic—plus you can assemble them without a recipe using whatever vegetables catch your eye.

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Vegetable boats!
Vegetable boats! Photo by Julia Gartland

First, choose your vegetable vessel. Let the season guide you (i.e. hard squash, mushrooms, and onions in the cool months, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers in warm), or take this as an excuse to use up any lingering produce.

To prep, cut the vegetables in half lengthwise, trimming the top and bottom, if desired. Hollow out the middle with a spoon, removing any seeds or ribs, and form a nice, roomy bed for the filling. Don't waste the insides, though! For hard squash, use the seeds for roasting, garnishing, or pesto, or add the insides of summer squash, eggplant, or onions to your filling. (The same goes for potatoes, but you already knew that.)

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Next, pre-roast your vegetable boats to soften them up. Preheat your oven to 375°F and drizzle or brush the vegetables with a bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and a turn or two of pepper. Feel free to begin infusing flavor at this stage, if you like: drizzle a few drops of vinegar, sprinkle some cayenne pepper or cumin, add a dash of soy sauce, or even pour a bit of maple syrup or honey.

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Roast the vegetables until soft enough to easily pierce with a fork. Depending on your choice, times will vary; heartier vegetables (such as winter squash) can take up to 40 minutes to reach this stage. I'd recommend beginning to check your vegetables after 15 minutes, especially if they're more delicate (such as peppers).

When the vegetables are tender, take them out of the oven and set on the counter to cool. If you're planning on stuffing them soon, keep the oven on. However, pre-cooked vegetable boats can be refrigerated for up to three days.

Fillings are an opportunity for experimentation (and leftover usage).
Fillings are an opportunity for experimentation (and leftover usage). Photo by Julia Gartland

While your vegetable boats are baking, make your filling. My formula is starch + alliums + cheese + nut + dried fruit + greens + herbs = happiness, but feel free to adjust to your whims: Add ground beef or lentils for a heftier entrée, skip the cheese altogether (and opt for nutritional yeast) for a vegan take, or throw in all of your fridge leftovers and call it a day. The world is your hollowed-out squash, just waiting to be filled!

Cook your starch of choice (I used wild rice, but feel free to go with quinoa, farro, couscous, or nix the grains entirely). Transfer it to a large bowl. Meanwhile, sauté half an onion, a clove or two of garlic, and any additional vegetables you want to add in a pan with a glug of olive oil until soft. Add that mixture to the bowl, too. Next, add chopped, toasted nuts (I used walnut, but pecan or pistachio would be lovely), cheese (I went with feta, but literally any cheese would be amazing), dried fruit for sweetness (I used dried sour cherries), chopped greens (swiss chard, in my case), and a healthy dose of herbs (I chose thyme and marjoram). At this point, add cooked, drained meat, beans, or lentils, if desired. Stir the whole mess together and season with whatever spices strike your fancy; just be sure you don't forget the salt. Taste to make sure you like what you've got.

Note: If you're feeling especially confident, feel free to attempt to cook your filling and vegetable vessel all in one (in this case, skip the pre-cook step). However, I find that the results are more consistent—and less anxiety-inducing—when I cook both components separately and meld them for a final, brief cook in the oven.

Ready for the oven!
Ready for the oven! Photo by Julia Gartland

Now we assemble! Divide the filling mixture evenly among your vegetable boats, then drizzle the top with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and more cheese or herbs. Pop the whole thing back in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the filling and vegetables are warmed through and the tops begin to brown. Dollop slightly-cooled vegetables with sour cream or yogurt, pesto, or green sauce—or eat as is.

An all-in-one meal (just add wine).
An all-in-one meal (just add wine). Photo by Julia Gartland

If you need some stuffed vegetable inspiration, here are a few combinations to try (and tweak):

  • Poblano peppers with black beans, brown rice, chorizo, and queso fresco, topped with lime crema
  • Sweet Vidalia onions with farro, anchovies, kale, and caramelized onions, topped with a quick tomato sauce
  • Zucchini or summer squash with quinoa, Parmesan, basil, and breadcrumbs
  • Portobello mushrooms with pearled barley and preserved lemon or root vegetable risotto
  • Eggplant with bulgar, ground lamb, tomatoes, and lots of spices

Got a favorite stuffed vegetable formula you always reach for? Tell us in the comments!


Tags: wellness, vegetables, stuffed vegetables, vegetarian cooking