The cooks from the Ottoman Empire loved to stuff their veggies with minced meat and rice, and over the centuries, have spread their love onto all the territories they occupied, most notably the Balkans. We all know about the stuffed cabbage. And the dolmas. Stuffed peppers were a staple in the cuisines of Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. However, despite their passion for stuffed vegetables, the Balkan cooks rarely combined all of the veggies in a singe pot. Yet, in the peak of the summer and early fall, when tomatoes, peppers and zucchini are at their sweetest and most fragrant, a long slow simmer in one pot creates a flavor bomb few dishes can beat. My dad thought me how to make this dish and on my recent visit to Belgrade we made it together and photographed the process to spread the love beyond the Balkans. And once you sample the veggies from the pot, that lonely stuffed pepper will not taste the same anymore. —QueenSashy
medium sized firm tomatoes
zucchini, preferably round or pear shaped variety
yellow squashes, preferably round or pear shaped variety
peppers (I like to use Cubanelle or similar thinner skin peppers)
medium to large cabbage
small yellow onions, finely minced
ground beef chuck
short grain rice
sweet Hungarian paprika
all purpose flour
small potato, sliced into ¼ inch thick slices
crushed tomatoes (such as San Marzano) or thick tomato juice
First prepare the filling. In a large saute pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent, for about two minutes. Add the ground beef and stir until mostly browned. Season with salt and pepper. Add the rice and stir until the rice is coated in oil, for about two minutes. Remove from the heat, add the summer savory and parsley, mix well and let it cool.
Prepare the vegetables: i) Wash the tomatoes. Cut the tops off. Use a knife to cut around the inside, separate the flesh from the skin and scoop out the flesh. Reserve the flesh. Keep one whole tomato, you will use the pieces of it to cover the veggie openings. ii) Wash the peppers. Cut the stems out and remove the seeds, leaving the opening of 1 to 1 ½ inches. iii) Wash the zucchini and squash. Cut the stems out and carefully hollow out the zucchini from the stalk end by pushing and turning an apple corer (or a knife) into the flesh, until you have a generous cavity. Make sure you do not pierce the bottom of the zucchini. Reserve the zucchini flesh for another purpose. iv) Cut the core out of the cabbage. Place the cabbage in a large pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, until the leaves can be separated easily. With a paring knife, remove tough ribs from the leaves without damaging them. You will need about 10 or so leaves for stuffing. Reserve the rest.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Prepare a large Dutch oven or casserole -- something like 16 inch diameter one will do nicely: i) Using a teaspoon, fill the tomatoes loosely with the meat mixture, making sure that there is some room for the rice to expand while cooking. Plug the opening with a potato round and lay the tomatoes upright in the Dutch oven. ii) Using a teaspoon, fill the zucchini and the squash loosely with the meat mixture, making sure that there is some room for the rice to expand while cooking. Plug the opening with the pieces of tomato and lay the zucchini upright in the Dutch oven. iii) Using a teaspoon, fill the peppers loosely with the meat mixture, making sure that there is some room for the rice to expand while cooking. Plug the opening with the pieces of cabbage and lay the peppers in the Dutch oven. iv) Place 1 ½ tablespoons of meat mixture on each cabbage leaf. Fold sides over and roll leaf up tightly lengthwise; tuck loose ends under into a neat package and place the package seam side down into the Dutch oven.
Pour the reserved tomato flesh and the tomato sauce (or juice) around the peppers and fill the pot with about 3 cups of water. (The vegetables will be covered with the liquid about half way.). Dust the vegetables with the flour, paprika and a bit more salt. Cover the vegetables with the remaining cabbage leaves (this will prevent the stuffed vegetables from getting burned). Cover the pot with the lid and place in the oven. Once the liquid starts to boil, reduce the heat to 350F, uncover and bake until the vegetables are cooked through, soft and swimming in thick liquid (about an hour and a half, give and take).
Remove the pot from the oven, let it cool and serve. (And if you add a side of mashed potatoes to absorb the remaining juices, you will be in heaven.)
Aleksandra aka QueenSashy is a scientist by day, and cook, photographer and doodler by night. When she is not writing code and formulas, she blogs about food, life and everything in between on her blog, Three Little Halves. Three Little Halves was nominated for 2015 James Beard Awards and the finalist for 2014 Saveur Best Food Blog Awards. Aleksandra lives in New York City with her other two halves, Miss Pain and Dr. V.