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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Not Quite A Peck

Michael and I adore eating stuffed stuff. We're particularly fond of stuffed peppers.  Apparently, my stuffed peppers are atypical because I don't include rice in the filling or pre-cook the meat.  I load halved peppers with a highly seasoned combination of meats before braising them in a vinegar infused tomato sauce and topping them with cheese.  Sweet. Acidic. Piquant.

I had stuffed peppers in mind while browsing the farmers' market the other day. With my Martha Stewart canvas tote in hand, I made my way through the market shopping.  My little mission was interrupted by the sight of ambrosia corn spilling  from wooden racks off the back of a Pulaski County truck. I wasn't there for corn, but at that instant I had to have corn. I had to have it before it was gone.  Before it was too late.

The morning was quiet and still, leaving the market void of the early summer hysteria. It was peaceful, reminding me of walks on the farm with my father while shuffling through dried fallen leaves. Pleasant, yet melancholy. Happy and sad.

Feeling nostalgic about the early days of summer (with fresh ears of corn in tow), I rounded the bend to make my final pass down the other side of the Tuesday/Thursday market.

My self inflicted melancholy was jolted  and snapped by a vibrant Casey County display of fresh peppers. They were gorgeous. Italian peppers, poblano peppers, hot banana peppers, sweet banana peppers, serrano peppers, habanero peppers, and red/green/black jalapeno peppers were standing tall in baskets, like soldiers at attention.

Oh, there might have been a few green bell peppers tucked around the table. I was pepper-sprayed from the beauty of the others and didn't notice.I bagged a basket of fully ripened sweet red banana peppers.

 A pepper is a pepper is a pepper. Right?  Stuff one...stuff  them all.

When I got home from work, I sliced the lovely long red banana peppers lengthwise, removed the seeds, and set them aside. After mixing ground pork with ground beef, minced garlic, parsely, 1 beaten egg, grated onion, salt, and pepper, I filled the shallow pepper boats with  the meat mixture, squishing it into every crevice of the peppers before topping them with thinly sliced garden tomatoes.

I always serve stuffed peppers over steamed rice.  Always. Well, I didn't have any rice. I had polenta and Attiecke, a west African quick cooking cassava couscous.

I took the polenta route.  I love the soft porridge-like  consistency of buttery cheesy polenta. Michael, not so much. Fried polenta was the answer.

Before joining Michael for wine, I topped the peppers with tomato sauce along with a few splashes of red wine vinegar, covered the dish, and slid it into a pre-heated 350 degree oven to braise for an hour.

While the peppers braised, I made a huge pot of polenta using Italian polenta meal and chicken stock. After stirring the molten cornmeal mush for what seemed like an eternity, popping and spitting like an angry volacno,  the polenta eventually pulled away from the sides of the pot. 

I slid the pot off of the heat and tossed in 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, an ear of cut off ambrosia corn kernels, 2 cups of grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, and a handful of baby arugula.  After a quick stir to wilt the arugula, I poured the gooey polenta into an oiled casserole dish to harden and set up.


1/2 hour into the pepper braise, I pulled the hardened polenta from the refrigerator. Using a wine goblet, I  cut the polenta into circles, floured the discs, and fried them until golden brown before sliding them into the oven to keep warm until we ate.

After several glasses of wine, I pulled the peppers from the oven,  topped them with fresh mozzarella cheese, and slid them back into the oven to melt the cheese.

So, here's the deal.  Apparently, not all peppers are created equal. Tough hard-skinned stuffed green bell peppers have no problem holding up through a long braise. They soften and collapse a bit, but retain their shape. Not so with tender-skinned peppers. The delicate flesh of the stuffed ripened red banana peppers completely disintegrated during the braise, happily creating an accidental cheesy braised pepper and meat-filled ragu.

I flew with it.

After stacking the fried polenta cakes onto our plates,  I wrestled the peppers from the pot and surrounded the cakes with the stuffed pepper sauce. It was hysterical. Strings of melted mozzarella cheese clung to everything, whipping and snapping like gooey rubber bands.  With little effort, I could have fashioned a splendid cheesy Jacob's ladder with my hands.

The polenta cakes were fantastically crisp with arugula-flecked soft interiors while nutty parmigiano and sweet mascarpone added depth and complexity. With chards of pepper-less meat masquerading as elongated meatballs, the accidental braised ragu had all the familiar flavors of stuffed peppers.

Did it turn out as intended?  Hell, no.

But, it was delicious.


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