The start of August is synonymous with fasting for the faithful Greek Orthodox Christians as they prepare for the Pascha of summer, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Koimisis tis Theotokou). For those participate in the strict fast, there are plenty of fresh vegetables in season to enjoy. The following recipe for gemista (stuffed peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini) is nistisimo, vegan/vegetraian, and takes advantage of the summer produce available this time of year.
Stuffed Peppers, Tomatoes, Eggplant, and Zucchini
2-3 large peppers, the color of your choice
2-3 medium-large tomatoes
2-3 small-medium eggplant
1-2 medium zucchini
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, diced
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped, or more to taste
1 can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped, or 4-5 medium fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
1 cup water
1 and 1/2 cups rice
Greek sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 packages (8 oz. each) mushrooms of your choice, sliced (optional)
If using mushrooms, sauté them in a large frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Don’t crowd the pan so the mushrooms can brown properly and develop their full flavor. When the mushrooms have cooked down, add salt and pepper and remove from heat. Set aside to cool, then dice and add to the stuffing later.
Prepare the vegetables by cutting the tops of the peppers off and removing the seeds. Reserve the tops for the caps of the peppers once they are stuffed. For the tomatoes, cut the bottoms off for the caps, the stem side down creates a more stable stuffed tomato, and scoop out the insides with a grapefruit spoon, reserving the flesh for the stuffing. Knead the eggplant to loosen the seeds inside, cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds to form a cup. The half will serve as the cap for the eggplant. Cut the zucchini crosswise to form a tube about three inches long, slice a round from the top for a cap and scoop out some of the center to form a cup, making sure to leave enough of the zucchini intact to hold its shape and the filling.
Set a pot of water to boil and parboil the peppers for a 3-5 minutes just to begin the cooking process. Using tongs, remove the peppers from the boiling water, set them to drain on paper towels. Depending on the size of the peppers and your pot, you may need to parboil in batches, so continue with the rest of the peppers and the eggplant. The tomatoes and the zucchini will cook in the oven and do not require parboiling. Arrange the vegetables in a large baking pan and sprinkle the inside of each with a pinch of salt before stuffing.
For the stuffing, heat a large deep sauté pan, add olive oil and sauté the onion until translucent. Add the tomato, eggplant and zucchini flesh scooped out earlier, and the chopped San Marzano tomatoes or the fresh tomatoes, if using. Sluice the can with a little cold water and add to the pan. Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat, add the rice, salt and pepper to taste and simmer. Stir in fresh chopped mint and cook until the rice has absorbed some of the water, but is not completely cooked. It will finish cooking in the oven. Stir in the cooked mushrooms at this point, if using, and begin filling the vegetables.
Using a spoon, fill the peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini with the stuffing. Cap with the reserved vegetable tops. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour or until the vegetables just begin to brown on top. Sliced potatoes may be added to the pan to bake alongside the stuffed vegetables, just sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste. Check on the baking vegetables since you may need to add water to the pan in case the pan dries out. If the tops seem to be browning too quickly, tent the pan with aluminum foil, or alternatively cover the pan with aluminum foil for the first 35-40 minutes of baking, then remove foil to allow the stuffed vegetables to brown a little at the end.
Traditionally, the stuffed vegetables are also called “ladera” because they are made with olive oil and are eaten on fasting days when oil is allowed. Serve the stuffed vegetables with feta (when not fasting), fresh bread, and greens or a salad. Bulgur wheat can also be substituted for the rice in the stuffing. To increase the protein, add cooked beans or lentils to the stuffing mixture as well.