A few years ago, when my in-laws were visiting from Turkey, we were invited to the 4th of July block party organized on our street. We were told that there would be a bake-off contest and a potluck. So the cooking members of the family, which included my mother-in-law and me only, split the duties—I was in charge of something sweet, while mother-in-law set out to make something savory, which she is exceptionally good at.
Remember my zebra cake picture? That picture was taken randomly at that very party as we waited for the bakeoff to take off and I, in particular, to selfishly grab the winning title. Alas, my zebra cake won a silver medal. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, was crowned as the unofficial winner (as there was no cook-off contest) of the potluck! She stole the show with her olive oil-cooked stuffed mini sweet bell peppers. Cute as buttons and extremely addictive. Everybody loved them!
So, meet the winning recipe – zeytinyagli biber dolmasi, one of the many dolma varieties the Turkish cuisine proudly boasts. Here, the bell peppers are stuffed with delicious mint-flavored rice filling cooked in olive oil. Typically, large bell peppers are used to make this particular dolma, but my mother-in-law makes them with mini peppers too, whenever she finds them. These stuffed cuties make a perfect prelude to a hearty meal. Try and see for yourself. You’ll love them.
Rice Stuffed Mini Sweet Peppers
Serves about 10
Note: In this recipe, the stuffed peppers are covered with their own “lids” – circles cut off from their tops. Traditionally, the filling is covered with a slice of tomato, but for mini peppers, I use their natural lids instead, as I prefer not to waste them. You can top the peppers with slices or halves of cherry tomatoes, if you wish.
For the Shells
2 pounds assorted sweet mini peppers (red, yellow, and orange)
For the Filling
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped (2 cups)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon red pepper paste
1 + 1/4 cup medium grain rice (such as Calrose), well rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely crushed dried mint
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
Extra olive oil, to drizzle on cooked peppers
First, prepare the filling. Put the onion in a medium frying pan, and without adding the oil, “sweat” it over medium heat, stirring often, just until slightly softened. Add the oil and when it is heated up, add the tomato paste and pepper paste. Stir to mix. Toss in the rice and sugar (you may need to add a little water, too, if the rice dries out quickly and is not cooking fast enough), and cook over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan, for 10-15 minutes. To check for doneness of the filling – take a bite on a rice grain: if it is soft on the outside and only slightly grainy inside, the filling is ready. Take care not to overcook. The rice will cook further inside the peppers. Remove the filling from the heat. Add the mint. Season with salt. Stir to mix and allow to cool.
Meanwhile, wash the peppers and pat dry. Cut a circle around the pepper stalk, leaving the circle attached. It will serve as a lid later. With your fingers, push the core of the peppers to the sides (because their core is tiny and the seeds are minimal, there is no need to remove them). Rub the inside of the shells with some salt.
Fill the peppers with the rice filling half full (do not overfill – the rice will expand while cooking). Put the pepper “lids” on. Arrange the peppers in a saute pan (large enough to fit all the peppers) in a slightly overlapping manner. Pour in the water.
Cover and cook over medium heat, until liquid is reduced to oil and the rice is fully cooked, about 1 hour. Note that the cooked peppers should not be mushy and should hold their shape nicely. Remove from the heat. If you wish, drizzle some olive oil on top of the peppers. Cover and allow to cool completely (yes, covered). Serve cold or at room temperature. This dolma stores well in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.