Jim Hillibish: Pepper season means piling on the fixin’s

Jim Hillibish

Strange. I’m looking at my bell and cubano pepper plants in our garden. All I see are stuffed peppers. In fact, I can taste them. Hurry up, guys, we can’t wait.

If I had to choose my last meal, this would be it. My mom always made them for my birthday, even though peppers were costly in January. Hers were the American variety, stuffed with rice and ground beef. Over the years, I’ve learned that’s just the beginning in this business.

The only thing new is pepper color. The oranges and yellows make excellent stuffers, but remember, they need about 20 percent less baking time than the green.

Mom par boiled the peppers, so hers always were mushy. Skip that if you like peppers with crunch. Ground beef now seems so mundane. Try doing a 50-50 with ground lamb.

Ground turkey or chicken is just waiting there to fill a ripe bell. Why grind it? Dice it instead. And don’t forget bulk sausage.

Truly universal

Almost every nation brags on its own stuffed peppers. Mexicans crave their heart-stopping chile relleno (hot peppers stuffed with meat and cheese) and poppers (jalapenos stuffed with cheese, breaded and deep-fried).

In Spain, the most popular is cod in a béchamel sauce stuffed with their favored pimientos. Mashed potatoes and hot spices do the deed in India.

Start with our basic recipe, then try some of the alternatives or invent your own family classic.

Your Mom’s Stuffed Peppers

6 bell peppers, any color, medium

1 pound ground beef

1 cup rice, long grain, cooked

2 tablespoons red onion, minced

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/2 cup water or red wine

Salt and pepper to taste

6 slices Monterey Jack cheese  

Cut off pepper tops and remove seeds and membrane.  Mix beef with rice, onion, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and pepper. Add 1/2 cup tomato sauce. Spoon into peppers.

Place in an oven-baking dish greased with olive oil. Add water or wine to remaining tomato sauce, and spoon over peppers. Bake 45 minutes covered at 350 degrees. Remove cover and bake 15 minutes. Melt a slice of cheese on each and serve.

 Feeds 4 to 6.

Wild Turkey: Use a 50-50 combination of cooked wild rice and white rice. Sub ground turkey for the beef. Add 1/4 cup chopped mushrooms.

From Italy: Use bulk Italian sausage, hot or sweet. If you cannot find it, use regular bulk sausage and add 1 tablespoon fennel seeds.

Ham: Sub ground ham for the beef. Mix in 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 1/4 cup pineapple juice.

Vegan: Use 1 1/2 cups red kidney beans instead of meat. Cook with rice and dashes of chili powder, oregano, basil and cayenne.

Asian: Use 1 pound ground pork with chopped scallion, 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger, 1 cup peas and a sauce of 3 tablespoons each soy sauce and dry sherry mixed with 1/4 cup beef broth and a tablespoon of corn starch.

Cajun: Use 1 pound chopped green (uncooked) shrimp with 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and chili powder.

Orzo: This is rice-shaped pasta. Boil in beef or vegetable broth. Add chopped scallion and stuff.

Chili: Boil down your favorite chili to thicken. Stuff hot peppers and bake, adding cheese at end.