Dolme ‘ye Felfel – Stuffed Peppers (Persian Style)
A delightful reader of this blog recently requested a recipe for stuffed peppers. I have a terrifying backlog of posts and chores and what-nots, but how could I say no? Specially as the query coincided with a fridge busting out at the seams with a bounty of red, orange and yellow bell peppers. Captivated by the bright toy-like colors and the practically graphic-designed architecture of the peppers, I admit that I had basically hoarded a whole bunch of them.
But look at how banamak (cute, that is) and photogenic they are, how meant to be gazed at and admired – putting the “belle” in bell pepper. Who could resist hoarding? Someone with more fortitude than bandeh (yours truly, that is) — that’s for sure.
In Farsi, peppers are felfel, a word I enjoy saying, and stuffed peppers are called: dolme ‘ye felfel. In the West, people only think of stuffed grape leaves when hearing the word dolme, but in Iranian cooking, dolme is the name of a genre of stuffed food that could be anything from stuffed leaves (like cabbage leaves or the ever-popular grape leaves) or stuffed veggies and fruits (such as eggplant, potato, white onion, tomato, apple, quince, squash or pepper.)
Dolme ‘ye bargeh kalam (stuffed cabbage leaves) and dolme ‘ye bargeh mo (stuffed grape leaves) are always made as autonomous dishes, but it is not at all unusual to combine different stuffed veggies or fruits in the same pot — a classic combo being that of eggplants alongside with peppers and tomatoes; or quinces alongside with apples — thus allowing not only for an eclectic display and variety of textures but also a fusion of flavors as the juice of one type of vegetable or fruit mixes in with that of its stuffed neighbor, thus creating a uniquely mouthwatering taste. (This slow-cooking flavor-fusion technique is beautifully employed in another genre of Persian food called ta’s kabob which consists of intricately and intimately nestling layers of fruit and herb and vegetable and meat in a pot, and cooking it slowly, slowly, slowly; thus yielding one of the most pleasing textures and most flavorful and aromatic types of food and broth one can taste. Making mental note to make some and post its recipe post haste.)
I chose to do a purist stuffed peppers dish – no intermingling with potatoes or tomatoes or eggplants or some such – primarily because my pretty peppers were starting to lose their looks (ah, capricious beauty!) and so I wanted to use up as many as possible before they went bad. For me, the highlight and perhaps even the raison d’etre of this dish is the broth – which is oh so very flavorful and happily even enhances upon reheating – but of course it is tasty in its entirely, and it is a healthy, visually fun and playful food to serve. The cumulative merit of which makes up for the fact that it’ll take at least two hours to make this dish.
I used a slightly modified version of the stuffing we earlier made for the stuffed quinces (using chopped peppers in lieu of quince pulps for the sauce.) The stuffing can easily be revamped as a vegetarian one by simply omitting the ground beef and using a combination of 1 cup cooked rice plus 1/4 cup cooked split pea plus 1 cup coarsely ground walnuts instead. (I’ll make some type of vegetarian dolme in the near future.)
Speaking of future posts, for those of you keeping score, the promised guest post (a terrific one that I know you’ll enjoy) and the ones for homemade rosewater and halva are in the works down the pipeline and coming to a theater near you before you know it. (Also, I have found fresh grape leaves – score! – and can’t wait to post its recipe sometime soon.)
- 7-8 large green, red, yellow or orange bell peppers (number depending on how many fit in your cooking pot, chop one for the sauce, stuff the rest)
- 6-12 small peppers (optional – stuff some and chop up the rest for the sauce)
- 1/2 pound ground lean meat (lamb, veal, or beef)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 3 tablespoons chopped scallion – about 3 stems
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint – about 3 sprigs (or substitute 1 teaspoon dried mint)
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon – about 3 prigs (or substitute 1 teaspoon dried tarragon)
- 1 medium-large onion (thinly sliced)
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- pinch of ground saffron (optional)
- 2 tablespoons or more sugar
- 1/3 cup or more freshly squeezed lemon juice (approximately 2-4 lemons)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste (divided into two portions)
- 1 cup boiling water and 1 cup tepid water
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- yogurt and bread (optional – to serve with the dish)
- Leave the stems intact but slice off the top of each pepper and save. Remove the white membranes (with a sharp knife) and the seeds (with your fingers and by tapping the pepper upside down on a board.) Take care to not puncture the flesh of pepper but if you do, use a bit of chopped pepper to patch it up when it comes time to stuff it. Coarsely chop one of the peppers (color of choice) and set aside for later use (in step 9) in the sauce. Blanch the remaining bell peppers in a big pot of lightly salted rapidly boiling water for at least one and up-to-but-no-longer than 3 minutes. Remove peppers from water and turn upside down on a board to drain. (Note: I had a dozen small peppers at hand, so I stuffed a bunch of them which came in handy to fill in the gaps between the bell peppers in the pot and chopped up the rest to add to the sauce. To follow this optional step, omit blanching but cut off the lids and remove seeds same as with the bell peppers.)
- Combine the freshly chopped parsley, scallion, mint and tarragon (or the dried substitutes when necessary) in a bowl and set aside for now.
- Season ground meat with 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon turmeric in a big bowl. Gently knead to evenly mix. Set aside.
- Combine 1 cup of boiling-hot water, 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, and 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Stir to mix and dissolve. (Taste and adjust to your liking, adding either more lemon juice or more sugar.) Reserve half to later add to the browned meat (in step 6), and half to later add for the sauce (in step 9.)
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil on high heat until it sizzles. Add sliced onions and saute/sizzle for a good 10 minutes or longer until the onion significantly shrivels (to approximately 2 tablespoons in size) and turns translucent and ideally somewhat crispy. During this process, keep a watchful eye and stir onions (once in awhile when necessary) to avoid burning but do not over-stir as it will cause the onions to release liquid thus thwarting the optimum results. (This process is called making piyaz dagh in Farsi, a.k.a. “translucent/fried onion” and it is a crucial step — I can not stress what an essential step this is in Persian cookery.)
- Once satisfied with the state of your fried onions, add the ground meat and brown (for approximately 5 minutes) on medium high heat. Add the chopped herbs, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, and 1 cup of tepid water to the browned meat. (Optional: add up to 3 tablespoons of chopped up peppers if you have enough to spare.) Stir gently to mix and bring mixture to a soft boil, then lower heat, cover pan with lid, and simmer for 20 minutes or longer until almost all the liquid is absorbed, at which point add half of the sugar/lemon sauce made in step 4 to the ground meat and stir to mix. (Optional: You can now add a pinch of ground saffron to the mix as well.) This is your stuffing! (Taste and adjust with lemon and sugar and salt and even a pinch or more of tomato paste to enrich the color to your liking.)
- Fill peppers with stuffing and top with their lids. (Tip: press down the stuffing with the back of a spoon to pack each pepper as full as possible.)
- Layer the bottom of a roomy pot with 1 cup of tepid water, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and the remaining chopped up peppers. Arrange stuffed bell peppers in a neighborly fashion in the pot so that they fit nice and snug- it’s OK if they squeeze each other as long as none are crushed. (If you made the small stuffed peppers, use them to fill up the empty spaces between the bell peppers and help secure them in place.)
- Once satisfied with the arrangement of the stuffed peppers, bring pot to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat to medium and pour the remaining lemon juice and sugar sauce (as made earlier in step 4) over the peppers. Cover the pot with a lid (ideally a glass one) and cook for 45 minutes (or a bit longer) on medium-high heat. When cooking is complete, taste the sauce and adjust if necessary with lemon or sugar or salt to your liking as a final touch.
Note: To know when to stop cooking, check the texture of peppers which should be malleable and tender but neither al dente nor too soft. This dish actually gets more and more delicious upon reheating so err on the al dente side which can be fixed with additional cooking time and avoid overcooking which leads to the dreaded (and irreparable) mushy, falling apart and murky-colored peppers.
Serve hot! Arrange peppers in a serving dish – ladling the sauce over and around and even inside the peppers. Allow at least one bell pepper per person. (Don’t eat the stems!)
Dolme ‘ye felfel is delicious with yogurt and bread (lavash or pita or flat bread) and can be served as a side-dish, appetizer, lunch or dinner. This is one of those dishes that improves on the second or third re-heating and is quite delicious as a left over.