Like many Americans, I grew up thinking of stuffed vegetables as a dish of hollowed-out peppers filled with a heavy mixture of rice, meat, and Italian tomato sauce. However, in the Middle East, stuffed vegetables are an entirely different animal. Imagine not just peppers, but also carrots, onions, tomatoes, beets, zucchinis, and potatoes, filled with a warm rice and vegetable filling infused with startling combinations of spices. These vegetables, hollowed out with an apple corer (or long vegetable corer) and stuffed with rice and the insides of the vegetables, are spiced with cinnamon, allspice, cumin, cardamom, and ginger, depending on the cook’s origin. Though this slightly tart dish infused with a hint of tomato and lots of lemon is not always beautiful to look at, it is a classic homemade comfort food of the region, stacked through the centuries in clay pots and slowly, slowly cooked in the oven.
A few years ago in Jerusalem, chef Pini Levy led me to one of the old timers who gave him the recipes he made in his beloved Pini Ba’hatzer restaurant. (Since then the restaurant, now called Etzel Pini Ba’hatzer, has moved to the seaside between Jaffa and Tel Aviv.) Her name was Esther Mizrachi, a woman who lived in the Old City before 1948 and later in Nachlaot, a picturesque section of the city near the Mahane Yehudah marketplace. Using lemon salt and no spices whatsoever, she showed me how she made stuffed vegetables, nestling each one in the same clay pot her mother had used, according to a recipe handed down from generation to generation.
Reminiscent of good, lemony stuffed grape leaves, this warming vegetarian dish is great for a weekday meal on a cool fall night. And what’s more, it tastes even better the next day.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.