Moosewood Nostalgia: Bulgarian Pepper Casserole

090Inspiration can come from many directions. In this case, two things converged.

One, I’ve been really diligent lately to try to use all of the veggies I’ve been getting from my CSA farm. I’d been slow to use some of the items due to my work schedule at this time of year, but in the last week, I’d made good progress.   I’m down to a couple of beets, a couple of sunchokes, and some potatoes. I always get through the potatoes last….

Second, my local supermarket had all of their peppers of any color on sale for $1 each. I’ve gotten peppers for less when in season and certainly so at farmer’s markets, but in January, it’s rare. I went in, walked past the display, and knew instantly what was going to be happening.089

Bulgarian Pepper Casserole. It’s a great, winter casserole (though the veggies would all be better in summer, but who wants to bake a casserole in summer?) that I discovered years ago when I was thinking about what to make for dinner for a friend.   I’m not really sure what made me think to make it originally (probably the peppers!), but it was really delicious and both of us were really excited by it. Sadly, I don’t hang out with that friend much, but this casserole has been ever-present ever since. I try to make it every year or two if I can.

I don’t have the original Moosewood cookbook. My version was a revised edition that was released for the 15th anniversary. In 1992!!!! Honestly, there are a lot of recipes in the book I haven’t tried – most, actually – but I’ve always been taken by the charming hand drawings and the long descriptions and instructions. Looking at it again today, I thought I really ought to try more of the recipes in the book to see if they’re all equally great. Another day, maybe.

Today was all about the pepper casserole. I’m not sure if it’s really based on a Bulgarian recipe, but it’s essentially three components: lemony-dill brown rice, a creamy ricotta-feta mixture, and an herb-filled sauté of onions, garlic, and bell peppers. These components get mixed together and topped with sliced tomatoes, garlic and kalamata olives. It a really simple recipe, but the preparation does take some time – 1 ½ hours according to the cookbook – so it’s a recipe that needs a weekend or an afternoon off. Or you have to plan ahead to make the rice and peppers earlier and then just assemble the whole lot when you’re ready to bake.

I had a free Sunday (unusual!) and 2 hours of NPR programs I like so I headed into the kitchen. After unloading the dishwasher so as to have a clean slate, I got to work.

Quick aside: I just learned this week that you cannot store brown rice more than about 6 months. Because it has more oils, I think, than white rice, it cannot last indefinitely in the pantry as I had thought. Before cooking today, I had to clean out the pantry (my rice did smell ‘off’) and bought a new bag of medium grain brown rice which I prefer, generally, to the long grain rice. I think it’s the influence of Japan.

Back to cooking. You start with the rice. It basically takes about 35-40 minutes to cook, so you need to start here or you’ll never be eating.

  •  1 ½ cups of brown rice, uncooked
  • 2 ¾ c. water

Place this in a pot, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. I usually turn off the heat at this point and then let the rice steam and absorb any extra moisture for about 10 minutes. At this point, stir in:

The juice of a lemon (I don’t measure like the recipe but just use a whole lemon)

  • 2-3 T fresh dill

The recipe says it’s ok to use dried dill (2 t.), but I’ve tried that once and it’s not the same. The fresh dill is worth the hunt and money. I splurged and got one of those little packages at my market. I didn’t really measure it – I used most of it. After mixing this together, pour the rice-dill mixture into a large bowl you’ll use to mix everything together.

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While the rice is cooking, you have about 40 minutes to get the rest of it together. Given the timing Mollie Katzen gives, you can kind of chop and cook as you go.

In a large sauté pan, begin by heating about 2 T. olive oil. When warm, add:

  • 2 c. onion (I just use one large onion, diced, and if it doesn’t seem like 2 cups, I’ll add more. Today I used a large sweet white onion and a small red onion we got from the farm recently) and cook over medium for about 5-8 minutes to soften and slightly brown the onions.

In the meantime, chop:

  •  4-5 bell peppers – be creative and colorful. I used 2 green, 2 red, 1 yellow.

Add the peppers to the onions, and then add:

  •  ¾ t. salt
  • fresh black pepper
  • ½ t. oregano
  • 2 t. basil (I was out, so I used thyme which I knew would also be yummy)

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Cook, still over medium, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. The peppers will be pretty tender. I usually take the mixture off the heat. To this, I stir in:

  •  4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 c. crumbled feta cheese

The warmth of the peppers melts the cheese and the garlic gets a little perfumed. Again, this can go into the big bowl with the rice-dill mixture.

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While the peppers are cooking, get out a food processor and add in 1 ½ c. of ricotta or cottage cheese. I usually use ricotta, but I like the idea of cottage cheese and think it would be a suitable swap. Also, sometimes I forget to put the feta into the peppers until it’s too late and the peppers are overly cooled. In that case, I’ve had perfectly good results putting the feta and the ricotta into the food processor. The point is to make the cheese smooth and to add some air. This smooth cheese mixture also goes into the big bowl.

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I like to put the rice and the smoothed ricotta into the big bowl first and mix them well to make sure that all of the rice is coated with the creamy mixture. I then add in the pepper mixture and mix pretty thoroughly. That’s really all there is to it. It takes time and you have to work through each part of the preparation, but it’s just cooking rice. Sauteeing peppers. Processing ricotta. Mixing it all together.

This mixture goes into a 9 x 12 baking dish that has been lightly oiled.

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On top of the mixture you place sliced tomatoes. Depending on the size of the tomatoes, you might only be using 2. I used 4 because mine were small. I do recommend you spend the money to get the best tomatoes you can find. In January in Oregon, the tomato options are pretty bleak, but I bought what smelled the most like a tomato in the store. They’re still not awesome. Eaten raw, nobody would be excited by them, but they smelled good and I hoped the cooking in the oven would enhance their flavor as the liquid would leach out and seep into the casserole. After covering the top with tomatoes, scatter the following on top:

  •  4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 1 cup flavorful black olives (kalamata, nicoise), sliced

I didn’t have a full cup of olives which was a pity, but I used what I had rather than running to the store. I will say the whole recipe benefits from the liberal amount of olives and garlic on top of the casserole.

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The whole, beautiful mixture goes into a 375 degree over for 30-40 minutes. If you make the rice and peppers ahead, plan for extra time if they are chilled from the fridge. If you’ve just gotten done cooking everything and assembling at the same time, then you can get away with 30 minutes. I split the difference and cooked mine for 35 minutes to get a bit of extra bubbling around the edges.

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It’s not local. It’s not seasonal. But it is delicious. The rice is tangy and creamy and the peppers and onion add sweetness that contrasts nicely with the flavorful olives and garlic. The cooked tomato adds an acidic note that you don’t get in every bite so it’s a lovely addition as you’re enjoying this rich, vegetarian dish. I love it! Love it!!

If you serve it to people you care about, it’s unlikely you’ll have leftovers, but if you’re making it for one or two people, you’ll also be delighted by the dish reheated for lunch or dinner the next day or two after making it. There’s enough moisture from the vegetables and creamy cheese and healthy brown rice holds up better from a texture standpoint compared to white rice which often “blows” out from absorbing too much liquid.

I went to the trouble, once, to reduce the recipe to a 9 x 9 pan, but I won’t make that mistake again. It’s so delicious and everyone I’ve ever served it to has loved it. You don’t want it to all get eaten. You’re going to want to make the full pan size (9 x 12) which is supposed to serve between 6-8 people according to the recipe. If you’re lucky, there will be a little left just for you for later.

It’ll be our secret.

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