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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A stuffed pepper recipe that goes hard on spiced chickpeas



Stuffed peppers with chickpeas and cheese. Blanketed with cheese, this filling recipe is perfect for summer and surprisingly light. Food styled by Samantha Seneviratne. (Johnny Miller/The New York Times)

By Melissa Clark


Of all the vegetables you can stuff, sweet bell peppers are among the most amenable. Unlike eggplant, onions or zucchini, which need their guts scooped to make room, or cabbage or grape leaves, which first have to be blanched, bell peppers are ready to go. Just slice them in half, shake out the seeds (or don’t; they’re harmless), and they’re all set for any savory mixture you can think of.


Since their hollow insides practically beg for filling, peppers have been prime candidates for stuffing the world over, using whatever locally adored mixture fits. Shredded chicken or pork, fish paste, mashed potatoes, bulgur, breadcrumbs, cheese, various vegetables and eggs have all found themselves wrapped in the sweet embrace of a roasted pepper.


Here in the United States, stuffed peppers are customarily packed with beef and rice, doused with chili sauce and blanketed in cheese. These darlings of high school Home Economics classes have long been beloved for their soft, familiar coziness.


Though my recipe draws inspiration from those distinctively American peppers, it takes a few liberties. I’ve made these vegetarian, for a start, by replacing the meat with earthy chickpeas, and kept things lighter by leaving out the rice. The cheese stays, obviously.


Riffing on the Elvis-era chili sauce, I opt here for chili powder. Chili powder with an “i,” as opposed to chile powder, is a mix of spices specifically blended to flavor a pot of chili, and includes ground chiles (usually ancho), oregano, garlic powder and salt. (Chile powder is usually ground from one particular variety of chile, such as chipotle.) Using chili powder here is a shortcut that rounds out the filling without resorting to syrupy chili sauce. Then, I layer in even more complexity with judicious amounts of ground cumin, scallions, lemon juice and tomato paste.


The peppers soften and sweeten as they bake, their flesh turning velvety. Yet the best part of the dish might be the bits of cheese that fall to the bottom of the baking dish, getting as crunchy as shards of salty frico. Use the sharpest Cheddar you can find, and be prepared to pry the bits off the pan with a spatula before sprinkling them on top.


It’s almost as if the bell pepper, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum — at least when there’s something wonderful to fill the void.



Stuffed peppers with chickpeas and cheese


Cozy, cheesy stuffed peppers are made vegetarian by using chickpeas instead of the usual ground meat. The cumin, tomato paste and chili powder give the filling its depth and heat, and plenty of scallions and herbs keep it bright and fresh. If you’d like to assemble the peppers ahead, you can. They’ll keep in the fridge overnight. Just pop them in the oven and add a few minutes to the baking time. Or bake them ahead and savor them later; these peppers are equally good served hot, warm or at room temperature.



Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes



Ingredients:


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

3 large red, yellow or orange bell peppers (a mix is nice), halved crosswise, seeded and membranes scooped out

Fine sea or table salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 bunch scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced

1 jalapeño, seeded, if you like, and diced

3 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced

2 (15.5-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon chili powder, more to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)

1 cup/4 ounces grated extra-sharp Cheddar

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, mint or cilantro



Preparation:


1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Generously oil the cavities and exteriors of the bell pepper halves. Season the cavities all over with salt and pepper. Place peppers cut side up in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

2. Add 2 tablespoons oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add white and light green scallion slices (reserving the dark green scallions for garnish) and jalapeño. Cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chickpeas, tomato paste, cumin, chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Stir to combine and cook until tomato paste and spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits stuck to the skillet (if there’s still browned bits at the bottom of the skillet, add a tablespoon or two of water to loosen them; the browned bits have all the flavor). Taste a chickpea and add more salt, pepper and chili powder if you like.

3. Spoon the chickpea mixture into the pepper cavities, filling the peppers up to the top. Cover the baking dish with foil. Bake the peppers for 30 minutes.

4. Remove foil and bake for another 10 minutes. Top peppers with the cheese and continue to bake until the peppers have fully softened and the Cheddar has melted and browned, 15 to 25 minutes.

5. Drizzle peppers with more olive oil and sprinkle with parsley and reserved scallion greens. Drizzle remaining lemon juice over peppers. When serving, be sure to scrape up any crispy bits on the bottom of the dish.

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