Zucchini + turkey stuffed bell peppers with rosemary-garlic tomato sauce and fontina

I don’t think anyone out there needs convincing that stuffed peppers are pretty much always a good idea. A classic for good reason. I rarely make the exact same recipe twice, but this rendition of a brown rice, turkey, and zucchini filling, smothered in a San Marzano tomato sauce spiked with rosemary and garlic, and topped with a bubbling brown lid of fontina and Parmigiano was so good that I wanted to share it here, if only to document the process for my own future reference.

Bell peppers are certainly not in season in the northeastern US right now, but our local market carries organic hot-house grown peppers that are meaty and sweet and hit the spot in bringing some much-needed summery brightness and bite to a cold February night. (Side note: if you’re looking for a more wintery vessel, acorn squash would be delicious with the very same filling.)

I used ground dark-meat turkey this time around by request of husband, but if you’d like to take your peppers for a vegetarian spin the headnote and recipe below include an option to substitute beans. Totally delicious, particularly with some fresh, toothsome heirlooms beans from the folks at Rancho Gordo.

As much as this is a recipe, for such a flexible dish it’s really only a jumping-off point for you to customize to suit your own tastes and preferences. The stuffing can be switched around in a hundred ways — work with what you have on hand and don’t stay tied to the ingredients list below. Fennel and mushrooms would be delicious. Crumbled tempeh in place of turkey or beans. Quinoa, millet, or bulgur as the grain would be fantastic. The sauce is flexible, too. Don’t have fresh rosemary on hand? Try fresh thyme, oregano, marjoram, or a blend. In summer fresh basil is splendid for a classic marinara.

Stuffed peppers with rosemary-garlic tomato sauce and fontina
Serves 6

If possible, purchase ground dark meat turkey, which is much more flavorful than ultra-low-fat ground white meat. I buy locally raised turkey from DiPaola Turkey Farms at my local NYC greenmarket, and it is the best-tasting turkey I have ever had. If you prefer to make this without animal protein, substitute freshly cooked or canned beans (see amounts in recipe below) for a delicious variation. A meaty bean variety such as cannellini, Rio Zape or Scarlet Runner is especially good in this recipe.

Depending on the size of your peppers, you may have leftover stuffing — it’s great in a frittata with grated fontina on top, and can also be made into a quick soup by combining with a few cups of flavorful broth and simmering for 20 minutes until the flavors have melded.

for stuffed peppers:
1 cup brown rice (I often use brown basmati); soaked for 6 to 8 hours in 3 cups water with 1 teaspoon salt

6 sweet bell peppers (red, orange, yellow), halved lengthwise, seeds and white ribs removed

extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
2 celery stalks, diced into 1/4 inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
1 large carrot, peeled and diced into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
1 jalapeno, chopped finely (including seeds)
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 zucchini, trimmed and diced into 1/4 inch cubes (about 1-1/2 cups)
red chile flakes, to taste
1 pound ground turkey (preferably dark meat) OR 2-1/2 cups cooked beans OR one 13.5-ounce can of beans, drained and rinsed (see head note)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (if using ground turkey)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces fontina, grated (about 1-1/2 cups)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or Pecorino

for sauce:
extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
One 28-ounce can San Marzano plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 sprig fresh rosemary
red chile flakes, to taste
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Bring rice to a boil with its soaking liquid. Reduce heat and simmer until tender but still slightly chewy and liquid has been absorbed, about 40 minutes. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add sliced garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant and just beginning to take on some golden color. Add tomatoes and their liquid, 1/2 teaspoon salt, rosemary, and a pinch of red chile flakes. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until thick and saucy, about 45 minutes.  Remove rosemary stem. Add salt and black pepper if needed and finish with a glug of olive oil.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease one or two baking dishes large enough to hold peppers in a single layer. Arrange peppers cut-side up and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a little salt.

Pour 3 tablespoons olive oil into a large skillet and turn heat to medium. Add onions and a pinch of salt and cook for 5 minutes, until starting to soften. Add celery, carrot, and jalapeño and cook 5 minutes more, then add garlic and zucchini and cook until vegetables are tender but not mushy, 5 to 8 minutes.

If using turkey:
Transfer vegetables to bowl with rice. Wipe pan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Heat over a medium flame until oil glistens, then add turkey, a pinch of salt, and garlic powder. Cook until turkey is cooked through, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with rice and vegetable mixture and stir to combine. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

If using beans: 
Add beans to skillet with vegetables and cook until beans are heated through, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to bowl with rice, toss to combine, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Fill pepper halves with about 1/2 cup of the stuffing mixture, pressing gently to fill them completely and to create a slightly mounded top. Spoon tomato sauce over the peppers and around them in the pan. Sprinkle peppers with fontina and Parmigiano.

Bake until peppers are fork-tender and cheeses are browned and bubbling, 40 to 45 minutes. If the cheese browns before the peppers are tender, cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil for remaining cooking time. Rotate pan (or pans) halfway through.

To serve, ladle tomato sauce into warmed pasta or soup bowls (or in a serving dish) and nestle the stuffed peppers into the sauce. Serve hot.

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