My parents’ generation grew up in harsh conditions. WWII was not kind to Serbia and many went hungry for years. Their view of food is very much akin to that of the Americans who survived the Great Depression. Meat was a luxury, served at holidays, and occasionally in the winter, through various reincarnations of the venerated pig (there was no part of the hog that was left unused). Wheat bread was reserved for the well-off, and the poor ate corn. The main dishes were soupy, filled with vegetables and grains, and served with a lot of bread to sop up the juices and fool the belly into feeling satisfied. In some really large poor families, mothers would frequently add a hefty amount of hot peppers so kids would eat less. It was a cruel, but unfortunately practical world in which children were dispensable, and men working the fields were kept at the top of the food chain.
Just like any other country’s peasant fare, Serbian traditional dishes, even today, contain small amounts of meat, hidden amongst piles of cabbage, carrots, peppers, eggplant, rice, or potatoes. Most of them, you eat with a spoon and several thick pieces of fresh bread. They are satisfying, simple, hearty, non-pretentious dishes. Not something you would seek when dining out, but definitely a first choice when coming home for the weekend from the University or after a camping trip with friends.
We usually spend summers in Serbia, and the peppers are everywhere, in all shapes, colors and sizes, their aroma permeating the market. Mother would carefully cut the stem out of each shiny, rounded, pale yellow pepper, loosely stuff them with onions sauteed with ground beef, salt, pepper, and a handful of nutty short-grained rice. She would close the opening with a round slice of potato and lay them snuggly in a pot, potato facing up, covered with water and just a little bit of homemade tomato sauce. They would simmer for an hour or so, filling the kitchen with an irresistible smell that always made me feel safe, comforted, and happy. When the skin became wrinkly and the peppers plump, she would serve them right from the pot; no side dish was necessary, just some good bread and a hungry crowd.
The young Beasties clamored for some stuffed peppers. I made Mother’s version several times this past winter. This time I decided to risk rebellion and take the stuffed peppers on a southeasterly trip. They still contained the essence of summer, but offered a different approach in spices and seasonings which packed some intense flavors and an interesting mouth-feel.
We have befriended the Mexican butchers who run the meat department in our local Persian store. I practice my rudimentary Spanish with them, and they correct me. Husband tips them unobtrusively every time, so we do not have to worry about the quality of meat that ends up in our basket. I had them grind the lamb, imagining the tasty detour the peppers would make.
The Beasties observed, tasted, looked at each other, and continued eating. They did not stage a rebellion. The only complaint: not enough sauce. Well, I can live with that. I was safe! Sure, it was not Mother’s recipe, but it was unbelievably good. It did not fly me home with the speed of light, but it brought a dose of mystery, a sense of the exotic, the smell of comfort and the unknown at the same time.
The imaginary wrinkled, gray-haired, tired man I thought of while eating these peppers was not of Serbian descent. He was a Berber, somewhere in Maghreb, but his smile was the same. I bet he used a lot of pita to pick up the juices off his plate. And he laughed with his family, satiated and happy with the lingering taste of sweet peppers on his lips.
MOROCCAN STUFFED PEPPERS
- 4 medium bell peppers (I used two red, two yellow)
- 2 poblano peppers
- 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
- ½ pound ground lamb
- 1 cup short-grain rice
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 Tbsp paprika (hot or sweet )
- ½ tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup diced tomatoes
- 1 cup prepared tomato sauce
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Cut the peppers in half and cut off the stem. Heat the oil on medium temperature in a heavy skillet, add ground lamb and spices. Stir until browned 5-6 minutes Add onion and garlic, and stir for another 2-3 minutes. Add rice, stir until it becomes translucent and nutty-flavored, 2-3 minutes. Add tomatoes and lemon juice, and stir for 2-3 minutes more. Stuff the peppers and lay them on a baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve with prepared tomato sauce.