At my restaurant, I’ll serve a stuffed artichoke as an appetizer, a stuffed portabella alongside a grilled steak, and a stuffed eggplant as the main event for a vegetarian dish. Yet when it came time to write this article and I was asked why I like to stuff vegetables, I was stumped. Do I chalk it up to human nature—that when we find an empty space, we want to fill it? Or do I like the fact that stuffing a vegetable inspires me to create a happy marriage between the vegetable and the filling in both flavor and texture? Or does it have more to do with the fun of actually eating the “bowl” the food comes in?
All I know is that I do it, I like to do it, and my customers like me to do it. And once you try these recipes, which are easy yet full of flavor, you’ll want to do it, too.
A good stuffing vegetable holds food and holds up to cooking
Early in my cooking career, I worked as an underling in a posh French restaurant. There I was given the task of stuffing piles and piles of tiny white mushrooms with a paste-like filling that I wasn’t even allowed to taste. The tedium of filling each little cap was enough to drive even the most enthusiastic young cook to consider a new line of work.
Now that I have my own restaurant, I avoid such pointlessly fussy work, and I don’t torture my staff that way, either. So when it comes time to stuff a vegetable, I avoid cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and anything else smaller than my thumb. A good stuffing candidate must be of a reasonable size, have a natural or potential place to put the stuffing, and have a texture that will hold up during cooking. Onions, peppers, artichokes, eggplant, squash, and tomatoes all work well. So do mushrooms—as long as they’re big ones.
The filling should fit the vegetable in more ways than one
When stuffing vegetables, think about strong flavors that come in small packages. Garlic, cheese, herbs, and spices are all critical to keeping the flavor of the stuffing vibrant. I look for flavors that seem to go together naturally. Meaty portabella mushrooms, for example, go wonderfully well with my favorite accompaniments to steak: caramelized onions, tangy blue cheese, and red wine. Onions, a staple in the Italian kitchen, seem a natural home for a simple stuffing of breadcrumbs, prosciutto, and Parmesan. And once I decided on orzo in place of the more traditional rice for the stuffed peppers, Greek ingredients—feta cheese, olives, and oregano—came to mind.
A starch, such as cooked rice, pasta, potato, or bread, helps bind the filling. You don’t need a lot of binder, however. I remember experimenting with stuffing cabbage leaves with salt cod, peppers, and garlic. Because I feared that the stuffing would just collapse and stream out of the cabbage if I didn’t bind it with a good amount of bread, I used a lot of bread. What I ended up with was a salt cod and garlic softball suitable for an after-work pickup game.
Make room for the stuffing
Choose vegetables that have a natural hollow for the stuffing, but make the hollow bigger by scraping, scooping, or trimming.
A long braise softens and adds flavor
Braising is usually my first choice when cooking a stuffed vegetable. This way, the vegetable cooks slowly and tenderly, while the liquid around it adds flavor. I generally don’t cover the pan while the vegetable braises because I like the roasted flavor that the uncovered vegetables take on.
Sometimes I partially cook the vegetable before stuffing and braising it. This precooking gets rid of excess moisture, as in the mushroom recipe, or caramelizes the vegetable for extra flavor, as in the onion recipe. The final cooking then brings the flavors of the filling and the vegetable together.