A New Take on an Old Recipe: Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed vegetables are one of the most common dishes in Eastern Europe, Middle East and the Caucasus region.

While cooking methods differ across cultures the name "Dolma" which means stuffed in Turkish seems the most common name given to these dishes. The reason for a Turkish name is not because these dishes actually originated from Turkey. The name stuck because the Ottomans borrowed entire culinary traditions from around the empire and created a fusion cuisine.

Most common dolmas are made with meat: Armenians use lamb, pork and beef, Greeks Turks, Iranians and Arabs combine beef and lamb. In the Balkans they go mostly with beef.

I prefer the subcategory of dolmas made without meat and eaten cold either as part of a meze plate or as a separate course by itself. And of all the vegetables that I can stuff, I prefer the green peppers.


8-10 soft green peppers (look for them in ethnic grocery stores and if not, use cubanelle peppers)
5-6 cooking onions
One table spoon of currants
One table spoon of pine nuts
100 grams of rice
Pinch of mint
Pinch of parsley
Pinch of Five spices (you can find them in Chinese stores, or use the version called Four Spices available in most places)
One table spoon of plain tomato sauce
Olive oil
One tomato


The first trick is to use green peppers grown in the region (Balkan to Caucasus area). They are lighter in color.

And they are less fleshy than regular bell peppers

It is hard to find them in North America so you can substitute Cubanelle  peppers.

The second trick is the amount of onion you put in and how you dice them. Because the meat recipe is considered the real thing, many cooks in the region simply take that blueprint and put too much rice and not enough onions in their dolmas.  For instance, for the nine peppers pictured above most cooks would use one or two onions and 250 grams of rice.

I use six onions and 100 grams of rice. That's because caramelized onions are the backbone of this recipe.
First thing is to dice them yourself the old fashioned way, meaning, no food processor chopping is allowed. Just remember to keep the root part intact and dice from the stem part of the onion.

Of course, if you want to impress people you can always say that you brunoise them.

But the reality is that you do not need a fine dice like brunoise technique. The pieces can be quite large.

Here is how I did it. Normally, I use yellow cooking onions but for this version I decided to go with red onions.

Put the chopped onions in a pot, add two table spoons of olive oil. Add some pine nuts.

The normal quantity is a table spoon but I usually exaggerate as I like the crunchy texture they bring to the dish.

Here is how they look in the pot.

Let the onions cook on medium heat for about half an hour to forty minutes. By that time they will have become quite sweet (i.e. caramelized) and translucent. And their volume will have been reduced by one third to a half.

Add some currants to provide texture and a different layer of taste. That seems to be an Ottoman thing.

Traditionally, you have to use long grain rice and prepare it by soaking it in hot water for 20 minutes. I simply add some water to my bowl of rice and microwave it for four minutes.

However, in today's recipe I am using Venere Nero, a black rice of Chinese origin but cultivated in Italy. It has a nutty flavor and makes a very interesting substitute.

It also absorbs more water than long grain rice and takes a lot longer to cook. Consequently, since this is the first time I am making this substitution, I wanted to err on the side of caution and decided to nuke my bowl for 10 minutes. If your rice is crunchy in a dolma dish that is a problem, whereas no one will notice if the rice is a bit soft.

When you take out the rice from the microwave, drain it and add it to the onion mixture. Add the tomato sauce, mint, parsley and five spices. Add one cube of sugar (or a small tea spoon of sugar) and a pinch of salt. Season with some pepper. Add half a glass of water, cover it and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes in low heat. 

Prepare the peppers by washing them and removing the stem.

Tip: push the stem inwardly while holding the pepper and it should separate from the rest of the pepper cleanly, then pull it out with all the attached seeds.

Stuff the peppers with the mixture you prepared.

Once you stuffed them, cut thin round pieces off a tomato and use them to plug the opening left by the stem.

In this version I plugged them with grilled red peppers as you can see in the picture below.

Places the stuffed peppers in a non-stick pot vertically (i.e. the stem opening should be upward). Add a small glass of water and a touch of olive oil. Cover and cook in medium heat. Occasionally check to see that there is enough water. Add if necessary. They should be ready in about 25-30 minutes. Check the softness of the peppers and of the rice to make sure that they are done.

The final dish looks like this.

Next time I will roast the pine nuts separately and add them to the onion-rice mixture before I stuff them.

I think they will add a nice touch of color contrasting with black rice.


Pleasant Surprises in Eateries

I was reading a novel by Barry Eisler the other day. He is my favorite CIA agent-turned-novelist. In the sixth installment of his Japanese American assassin John Rain he moves him to Paris. And then he sends him to fairly obvious places to eat and drink.

That gave me the idea to write about unknown and off-the-beaten-path bistros and brasseries in Paris. After all, if I were to send my characters to some locations and eateries, I would stay away from the Marais district and Cafe de Flores in Saint Germain area.

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine and I were trying to find a decent place to have lunch in the 9th arrondissement. We stumbled upon Clarière, an unassuming little restaurant where the husband is the chef and the wife is the maitre d'hotel.

Many French couples dream of starting a small restaurant where one of them would cook and the other would serve. It is the French version of the Anglo Saxon bed and breakfast dream. Usually, the dream turns into a nightmare. Running a restaurant is a highly specialized task and most people find it arduous.

In this case, it was perfect harmony. Michel and Eve Hermet found the right balance. He looked after the kitchen and she took care of the service. The food was imaginative and whimsical. And the service was attentive yet unobtrusive.

The restaurant is called Clairière and it is in Rue Chaptal in the 9th arrondisement. 

It is a perfect place to have lunch and send your literary character to have a bite in between killing assignments.


Essential Rules of Shopping in Paris: Information Society vs Kiosk Society

Practically all my significant purchase decisions are preceded by a period of online research. I never go and say to a sales person, "I am here to buy a [insert item here] but I have no clue about what to buy. What do you suggest, young man?" In fact, most of the time, I pre-select the brand, the model and decide on the specifications, read the reviews, and customer evaluations. And I go to a store, find it on the shelves, take it to a cashier and buy it.

Apparently, this is known and despised in Paris as "the American approach."

I found out about the name of my criminally offensive approach in my third month in Paris. I was going to buy a cell phone. So, as usual, I checked online the top three carriers, compared their plans, looked at the available handsets and on that basis I went to an Orange store. A young man approached me to help. Of course, I bonjoured him promptly. Then told him that I was there to get a handset and a monthly plan. Before he could steer me to whatever handset he felt would go with my fading complexion and uppity body language, I told him that I already knew the handset I liked and I also knew which monthly plan would suit my usage patterns.

The guy stopped. He turned around and looked at me with deep suspicion and a touch of irritation. He posed the fateful question: "Are you an American?"

I know what you are thinking, but it was not my accent. I would concede that if you pay attention you can hear that my French has a slightly off intonation. But by and large I speak without an audible accent. At first, I was tempted to say that indeed I was an American in Paris and my name was Gershwin but literary sarcasm is not well received here. I didn't want to be defensive and tell him that I was not an American. Instead, I answered him with a question: "Why do you say that?"

He said that only Americans go online to check out various options and do some research before they show up in his store. It was not an expression of grudging respect for North Americans for making his life easier. He was telling me that my foolish and unnecessary "démarche americaine" was making him feel less important.

You see, my approach was stupid because he already knew all the answers. All I had to do was to tell him that I needed a phone and he could determine the best handset and voice plan in ten seconds. And he could do so, much better than me, a lay person obviously lacking a Cartesian mind set. That's high modernity and that's why France is the only country that badly needed post-modernity.

I am sure you think I exaggerate. But the whole shopping system is designed to operate like a kiosk. You need a sales person for everything. For clothing, they routinely move to storage pieces from their current collection. You have to go to someone and say, I saw a brown coat two days ago and they will go and bring it out for you.

For electronics, same thing. Let's say that you are buying a hard drive. You go and find a clerk as hard disks are not on the shelves because someone might steal them. The clerk will look at you indifferently and will ask a few questions. He will close his eyes for a few seconds in a Zen trance to indicate to you that he is now evaluating thousands of possibilities in his brain to determine what is best for you. He will then communicate the winning model to you with no justification for his decision other than a terse "this is the best one for you." Because you do not possess his superior wisdom and knowledge you will gratefully bow to his choice. He will magnanimously write the model code on a paper and tell you to go and pay for it.

With your little "fiche" in hand, you will join the long line up to pay for the item. And then you will go to another part of the store to join another line up to retrieve it (in the UK they use the French word "queue" for line up, possibly to establish the origin of the practice through etymology).

On your way out, big and bulky African store guards will subject you to a cavity search to prevent you from leaving the store with a large screen TV under your shirt. You will go home to enjoy your new purchase.

For mobile phones, they take one additional step to stop you getting information from other sources. They put all their promotions and their latest call plans in glossy catalogues every month, print them and send them out to their stores. Critically, the information contained in these catalogues is available online only in summary form and sometimes not at all. I defied many Parisian friends to find me the details of a call plan online and they failed to get it.

The funny thing, my little challenge left my friends puzzled. They said "if you had to possibility to talk to a person to retrieve some information, why would you want to do it online?"

Carbon footprint be damned, consult someone who consults dead trees. And tells you what is best for you.

That's kiosk society in high modernity.