Stuffed peppers are sometimes called a comfort food. But for me, the ubiquitous ground beef and rice stuffed pepper was always a let-down. Even when cooked perfectly, so that they stayed moist inside yet the pepper was still crisp-tender, there is just something lacking in an ordinary stuffed pepper. When I found an updated recipe from the amazing minds at Cook’s Illustrated in their new cookbook, I thought that maybe it was time to give them another shot. (I love Cook’s Illustrated… over time that will become really clear. I even get the magazine on my Nook so I can easily read it on the bus on my way to work.) I couldn’t leave well enough alone though, I added a bunch of spices to punch up the flavor and used the Cook’s Illustrated technique, and we were not disappointed in the slightest.
To add some extra flavor, I used sausage (just plain, not sage flavored) instead of ground beef, then added a combination of spices that included smoked paprika, chile powder, cumin, brown sugar, and cayenne pepper. Since I don’t like ketchup, I used tomato paste instead, and I added a small sprinkling of breadcrumbs at the top for crunch. If you are on a gluten-free diet, just leave those out. Also, if you like this spice mix but want a vegetarian option, drain and heat up a can of black beans to replace the sausage. I’ve also made them this way and they were good, although you may want to add more paprika and chile powder.
I just love those little bitty dishes, they’re great for measuring spices ahead of time so that you can just dump them in when you’re ready for them. Also, don’t be alarmed by the GIANT can of diced tomatoes, I just didn’t have a small one. You only need half of a regular sized 14 oz. can (drained), plus 1/4 cup of the juice.
First cook the rice, because it’s likely to be the most time-consuming step. I used brown rice, and for 4 peppers you’ll need 1/2 cup of rice. Just cook it according to the directions on the bag, and set aside in a large mixing bowl when it’s done. You can do this ahead if you’d like. In fact, if you know that you’ll be pressed for time, you could make all of the stuffing ahead of time and refrigerate… I would just heat it up in the microwave before stuffing the peppers to cut down on the baking time.
Next, prep the garlic, onion and bell peppers. Put a large pot of water on to boil, and heat the oven to 350. The garlic should be minced really finely and the onion chopped… or diced if you prefer really small pieces of onion. For the pepper, you will want to cut off roughly 1/2 an inch from the top of each pepper (I think it helps to have all the peppers roughly the same size, so cut off more if you need to). Once you can remove the top, take out the core, the membranes, and rinse out any seeds that are being stubborn. If your peppers are really uneven on the bottom and won’t stand up, slice a tiny bit from the bottom so that it stands evenly. Just be sure not to cut all the way through to the hollow portion. We can’t be wasteful, so take the tops of the peppers and cut the stem out. Chop up what’s left and set it aside (you can see mine in the back here).
I used red peppers and green ones, and it worked out perfectly. The red ones were slightly smaller, perfect for my appetite, and the green ones which were more the boyfriend’s size. We were both perfectly satisfied after one pepper each!
When the water in your pot boils, add the prepped peppers (say that 3 times fast) and cook them for three minutes. You can do this in batches if you need to. Remove them to a colander or a plate covered with paper towels to drain. The residual heat will finish cooking the peppers while they drain, so don’t worry if they still feel quite crisp.
Next, heat olive oil in a large skillet. A tablespoon should be enough, but add more if you think the onions are going to burn. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and saute until they are translucent. Add the garlic and let cook for roughly 30 seconds to 1 minute, until garlic is fragrant but not yet browning. Add the sausage and cook, breaking it up as you go. When the sausage is almost done, add all of the leftover pepper pieces, and allow them to cook down slightly while the sausage finishes browning.
In hindsight, you could add all of the spices here, and let them cook into the sausage and peppers for a deeper flavor, but I didn’t think of that. So while the meat and peppers cook, add all of the spices to the bowl that holds the rice we cooked earlier (start with two dashes of cayenne pepper). Also add the drained diced tomatoes, 1 cup of shredded cheese, and salt and pepper. And when the sausage and peppers are done throw them in as well!
Mix all of that good stuff together, and then stop to taste. If you prefer spicier foods, then add more cayenne pepper. Otherwise it should be ready to go. The brown sugar really helps to pull together the flavors and keeps the spice from overwhelming the taste buds. When it’s seasoned to your liking, place the peppers into a greased baking dish, and stuff them to the top with the filling. Don’t fret if you have extra filling left over, just heat it up later and put it in a tortilla… it makes for a delicious burrito.
Now take the 1/4 cup of reserved tomato juice and place it into a small bowl. Add two tablespoons of tomato paste and mix it together. Pour the liquid evenly over the peppers. Assuming that there are no holes in the bottom of your peppers, this will keep them moist during baking. Sprinkle each pepper with cheese and breadcrumbs, and put them into the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until they are warm and the cheese and breadcrumbs are melted and browned on top.
Spicy stuffed bell peppers
Inspired by the Classic stuffed pepper recipe from the cook’s illustrated cookbook
1/2 cup brown rice
4 red or green bell peppers
1 yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 lb sausage
1 cup shredded cheese (Monterey Jack, ‘Mexican 4 cheese blend,’ or Mozzarella)
7 oz diced, canned tomatoes (drain and reserve 1/4 cup of juice)
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cumin
cayenne pepper to taste
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
shredded cheese and breadcrumbs to sprinkle over top
1. Cook rice according to directions on package. When done, set aside in large mixing bowl until later.
2. Prep peppers, cut off 1/2 inch and remove core, membrane and rinse out any remaining seeds. From piece removed from top, cut out stem, then chop up the remaining pepper pieces. Set aside.
3. Heat oven to 350 and grease shallow baking dish. Put a large pot of water on to boil, adding salt to the water. When water boils, cook peppers for three minutes. Remove to colander or plate covered in paper towel to drain.
4. Heat olive oil in large pan on stove top, saute onion until translucent. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant but not browned. Add sausage to pan and cook, breaking up like ground beef as it cooks. When nearly done, add the leftover pepper pieces and cook until sausage is done and peppers are softened.
5. Add spices, tomatoes, cheese, and sausage/pepper mixture to the mixing bowl which holds the rice. Mix together. In small bowl, mix together reserved tomato juice and tomato paste.
6. Place drained peppers in greased baking dish. Stuff completely with filling. Pour tomato juice/paste mixture evenly over all peppers. Sprinkle lightly with cheese and breadcrumbs.
7. Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes. When done, they will be browned on top and warm all the way through. Enjoy!