One of my favorite Greek dishes growing up was yemista, or stuffed tomatoes and peppers. My grandmother or, yiayia, would make this during our stays in the summer when the tomatoes are plump, flavorful, and abundant. My mother learned her recipe to make it in the States and now my sister and I make it for ourselves - though it will never be quite like our yiayia's. The privilege and joy that is cooking with a Greek grandmother was never lost on us. Our mouths still water thinking about her cooking and we won't forget her insatiable desire to feed us.
Greek cooking and cuisine are essential to its culture and the Mediterranean heritage - it has even been designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in part because it "provides a sense of belonging and sharing and constitutes for those who live in the Mediterranean basin a marker of identity and a space for sharing and dialogue".
This month, we are sharing some of our favorite Greek recipes for the summer season. Every July to September, tomatoes are in their prime and a summer staple at every meal in Greece - either cut fresh for a horiatiki salata or slow cooked in yemista. Today, Ashley Korizis from The Olive and The Sea shares her mother-in-law's version of the iconic Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes recipe:
Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes
By Ashley Korizis from The Olive and The Sea
Tomato season is upon us and I can barely contain my excitement at the thought of eating endless amounts of stuffed peppers and tomatoes. This dish, better known as "yemista" in Greek, is one that we only cook in the summer. The reason being that the flavor of the tomatoes significantly influences the dish and winter grown hot house tomatoes pale by comparison to those rippened in the sun.
Seasonality aside, the flavor of this dish is what will hook you. The secret lies in the mint. When combined with the onion, olive oil, and tomato, a particular flavor is created that is delicious and addictive, in a "Pringles" kind of a way...
Of any family recipe, this has been the most difficult one to document. Primarily because this dish is subject to a great degree of variability and my goal is to capture my mother-in-law's exact recipe. Anyone who has experience with a lifelong cook knows that their measurements are imprecise. Thankfully, after failing at this dish more times than I care to count, I believe I have finally identified all of the critical steps to help you make this traditional Greek recipe a success the first time around.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
4 beefsteak tomatoes
4 small green bell peppers*
1 medium red onion
1 clove garlic
1 cup medium grain rice
4 cups water**
2 teaspoons salt (divided)
2 tablespoons fresh mint or 1 tablespoon dry mint
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (divided)
1 large yukon gold potato
* This dish can be prepared with 8 tomatoes instead of 4 tomatoes and 4 bell peppers
** The amount of water is variable and greatly influenced by the type of rice you use. The quantity of water for this recipe is based on Arborio rice, which calls for 4 cups of water for each cup of rice
Cooking and Prep Time - 2 hours and 45 minutes
- Wash the peppers and tomatoes
- Remove and keep the tops of the tomatoes, carve out the pulp with a spoon, and place in a blender.
- Remove and keep the tops of the peppers and discard the seeds.
- Place the peppers and tomatoes in the baking pan and sprinkle the inside of the vegetables with 3/4 teaspoons salt
- Peel, cut, and combine the onion, garlic, mint, and fresh tomato in the blender
- Blend until smooth and pour into a large bowl
- Add 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 cup rice, 4 cups water, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 1 teaspoon salt, and stir until well combined
- Spoon 1 tablespoon of rice into each pepper and tomato. It may not look like much at first but the rice will expand as it cooks and it is key that you not overstuff the peppers and tomatoes. You will need to scoop the rice from the bottom of the bowl as it will have settled
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees
- Spoon 4 tablespoons of the tomato mixture into the peppers and tomatoes. It is important to keep the rice to liquid ratio around 1 to 4. Depending on the size of your vegetables, you may need to add a little more rice and liquid. Simply make sure you keep the 1 to 4 ratio when doing so
- Place the caps back on the peppers and tomatoes
- Peel and cut the potato into 4 or 6 slices lengthwise and place around the peppers and tomatoes
- Pour the remaining rice and liquid into the baking dish, taking care to disburse the rice evenly throughout the pan. If needed, stir around with a spoon.
- Depending on the size of your baking pan, you may need to add a cup of water. The liquid will evaporate during the cooking process and the larger the exposed surface area of the liquid, the more will be lost from evaporation. As a general rule, I try to keep the tomatoes covered half way. In the case of the above illustration, it would have been best to add an additional cup of water bringing the liquid up to the blue line. The dish still tasted good but the rice in the pan was a little drier than intended
- Drizzle the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil over the dish
- Place in the middle rack of the oven that has been preheated to 500 degrees
- Bake for approximately 30 minutes until the tops of the peppers and tomatoes are slightly charred
- Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 90 minutes
Tip: If you notice the rice in the pan becoming too dry (it should resemble a creamy risotto), you can add in a cup of water to restore some of the moisture. It is better to overcook than undercook this dish. If in doubt, you can always bake for an additional 15-30 minutes
Thank you, Ashley!
(Photos by Ashley Korzis. Recipe courtesy of The Olive and The Sea. Edited by Bess Tassoulas)