As a culinary technique, stuffing food with other food goes way back. Shrouded in the mists of time, not long after some caveman figured out that a dead sabre-tooth tiger tasted better and was easier to chew if the dead tiger spent some time on the caveman’s newly discovered fire, that cave-cook figured out that the tiger was less likely to make him sick if he scooped the innards out first before roasting him on his new fire.
Once the innards were gone, there was that lovely cavity just begging to be refilled with something, maybe some ancient grains or leaves or berries. Our caveman invented the one-pot meal before he even invented the pot. He must have been very proud of himself.
And we humans have been stuffing things ever since. Lisa de Simone says her grandmother, who was born in Italy and learned to cook there as a young girl before coming to America, could and would stuff anything with a hole in it. Meat, vegetable, fruit, pasta, pastry, it didn’t matter. Nonna would stuff that bad boy.
The oldest surviving cookbook, “Apicius de re Coquinaria,” written by a Roman gourmet named Apicus somewhere between the 2nd century BC and the first century AD, has a wide variety of recipes involving stuffing. Apicus apparently loved some stuffing, according to FoodReference.com and didn’t stop at the usual chicken, rabbit or pig. Apicus’ ancient tome even provides direction for stuffing a dormouse.
Fast forward a couple of millennia and The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in the 1890s, has not one, but two recipes for stuffed peppers. So, no, your grandmother did not invent stuffed peppers back in the depression when she crammed some dried-out biscuits into a bunch of bell peppers about to go bad in the garden and drenched the whole mess in gravy. Her ingenuity was inspired though and should be celebrated.
But granny and the Boston Cooking School were not the only ones stuffing peppers back in the day. Stuffed peppers have a place in the cuisines of Spain, India, Tunisia, Mexico, Denmark, Hungary, Romania, Korea, and the Philippines, and probably others. All over the word, if there’s a pepper, somebody has stuffed it.
But lately, it seems like we humans have gotten lazy and abandoned our stuffing heritage. It takes so long, we whine. A Christmas turkey cooks faster unstuffed so the stuffing is not stuffed but cooked in a separate dish.
Stuffed cabbage, one of the glories of Jewish and Eastern European cooking, is notoriously labor-intensive. A head of cabbage is boiled until the outer leaves become cooked just enough to be pliable enough to serve as a wrapper for stuffing. They are removed and the next layer gets the same treatment. The process requires some skill and experience to know just when the leaves are ready but not yet mushy and unusable. Fingers sometimes get burnt. It is the sort of recipe best mastered at the side of an expert, not from the pages of a cookbook.
Somewhere along the way, someone thought it would be much simpler to just layer the cabbage and the stuffing mixture into a casserole dish and shove it into the oven. And since it’s in a casserole dish, it seems a shame not to sprinkle some cheese on it because what’s a casserole without melty, browned cheese on top? And so it goes. Tradition drops by the wayside and something new takes its place.
Following are a few recipes for unstuffed versions of previously stuffed foods. If you’re busy with precious little time to cook much less spend hours tediously stuffing one food inside another food, it might be time to embrace the unstuffed concept.
Do you love tamales but don’t have the patience to lovingly wrap corn and fillings in corn husks before cooking? Try tamale pie.
Do you really like stuffed shells but can’t bother with stuffing the cheese filling into the big pasta shells. Make an unstuffed version using small shells.
Or make a casserole of unstuffed peppers. Granny would be proud of your ingenuity.
Unstuffed Cabbage Casserole
1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil, divided (more or less, depending on your pan)
1 lb. ground beef
1 large onion, chopped small
1 tbsp. finely minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp. sharp Hungarian paprika (optional; can be hard to find. It’s sold online.)
salt and black pepper to taste (for seasoning meat mixture and cooked cabbage)
1 head green cabbage, coarsely chopped
1 can (14.5 oz.) petite dice tomatoes with juice
1 can (15 oz.) tomato sauce
1/4 cup water (just enough to rinse out each of the cans)
2 cans black beans (optional)
2 cups cooked rice or quinoa
2 cups cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a large glass or crockery casserole dish with non-stick spray. Heat 1-2 tsp. olive oil in a large frying pan; add ground beef and cook until it’s done and nicely browned, breaking apart as it cooks. Remove ground beef to a bowl. In the same pan, add a little more olive oil if needed, then add chopped onion and cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent and starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic, dried thyme, and paprika and cook about 2 minutes more. Then add the diced tomatoes with juice, tomato sauce, and ground beef. Rinse each of the cans out with a little water (about 1/4 cup total) and add to the pan. Let mixture simmer until it’s hot and slightly thickened, about 15-20 minutes. While the meat mixture simmers, cut cabbage in half, cut out the core, and remove any wilted outer leaves, and then chop the cabbage coarsely into pieces. (They don’t have to be all the same size. Pieces can vary from 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches.) Heat about 2 tsp. olive oil in a large frying pan or dutch oven with high sides (if you don’t have a pan big enough, you’ll need to do it in batches), add the cabbage and cook over medium-high heat until the cabbage is wilted and about half cooked, turning it over several times so it all wilts and cooks. Season cabbage with salt and black pepper. When the meat and tomato sauce mixture has cooked 15-20 minutes and thickened a bit, stir in the 2 cups of cooked rice and black beans (if using) and gently combine. Spray a large glass or crockery casserole dish with non-stick spray and then layer half the cabbage, half the meat mixture, other half of cabbage, and other half of meat mixture. (You’ll need a really big casserole dish or perhaps two smaller ones.) Cover tightly with foil and bake 40 minutes, or until the mixture is just starting to bubble on the edges. Remove foil and sprinkle on cheese. Bake uncovered an additional 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and starting to slightly brown. Serve hot. This freezes well, a good thing since you may end up with two casseroles.
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
11/3 cups water
1 pound lean ground beef
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 medium-size sweet green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (151/2 ounces) red kidney beans, drained
1 can (10 ounces) enchilada sauce
1 can (4 ounces) diced green chili peppers, undrained
1/4 cup chopped pitted black olives
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
In a small bowl, combine the cornmeal, the cold water, salt, and red pepper. In a medium-size saucepan, bring the 11/3 cups water to a boil. Slowly add the cornmeal mixture to boiling water, stirring constantly to make sure it does not lump. Return to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower heat and cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until very thick, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large skillet, cook the ground beef, onion, green pepper, and garlic until meat is browned. Drain off fat. Stir in the kidney beans, enchilada sauce, chili peppers, olives, and chili powder. Bring to a boil. Spread the hot cornmeal mixture into a greased 8″ x 8″ x 2″ baking dish. Spread the meat mixture over the cornmeal layer. Bake, covered, for 20 minutes or until heated through. Sprinkle with the Cheddar cheese. Bake, uncovered, for 2 minutes more or until the cheese is melted. Makes 6 servings.
Stuffed pepper casserole
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups diced bell peppers
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, undrained
2 cups beef broth or stock
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 cup uncooked white basmati rice
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
In 4-quart saucepan, cook beef, onion and garlic over medium-high heat 5 to 7 minutes, breaking into small pieces as beef browns. Add bell peppers, salt and pepper. Cook 5 to 7 minutes longer or until peppers have started to soften. (If you didn’t use extra-lean beef, drain off some of the fat at this point.) Reduce heat to medium; add tomatoes, broth, tomato sauce, soy sauce and Italian seasoning. Stir until well combined. Heat to boiling. Add uncooked rice. Return to boiling; reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer about 25 minutes or until rice is tender. Remove from heat; sprinkle with shredded cheese.
Stuffed Shells Casserole
12 oz. whole wheat pasta shells
1 (24 oz.) jar marinara sauce
1 15 oz. container ricotta
1 (9 oz.) package frozen spinach (thawed and squeezed dry)
1 egg white
1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
4 – 6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried parsley
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta shells, then add in the marinara sauce and mix. In a medium sized mixing bowl, combine ricotta, egg white, spinach, garlic, parmesan, parsley, oregano, basil, and salt & pepper, and mix well. Mix 1/3 of the ricotta mixture in with pasta. Spray a 9” x 13” baking dish with cooking spray or an olive oil mister. Place 1/2 of the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Drop spoonfuls of the remaining ricotta mixture evenly on top of the pasta shells. Top with remaining pasta shells. Sprinkle evenly with the shredded mozzarella. Cover with foil, poking a few holes for steam, and bake in oven for about 25 minutes. Remove foil, and place back in oven for another 5 minutes until cheese is melted, and bubbling.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.