Growing up, there was one particularly iconic piece of equipment in the family kitchen; a large, deep black, heavy duty, cast iron casserole, complete with a heavy lid. When it wasn’t on the hob, it stood proudly on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, and for many years I wasn’t strong enough to lift it… in hindsight, the top shelf perhaps wasn’t the best place to store it. I’m sure there must have been a good reason for it…
No doubt, this well worn piece of kitchenware has been a major influence on my love for one pot cooking, which I will write about extensively in the future. However, for today, what I have to offer isn’t something of the kind.
One of my mother’s staples using that dish is stuffed vegetables – more specifically – stuffed potatoes and tomatoes. The family recipe for these is quite simple.
Using large potatoes, cut half a centimetre from the top and hollow the inside of the spud to replace it with a mixture of sausage meat and minced beef seasoned with persillade. Sausage meat can obviously be quite different from region to region and even butcher to butcher – and of course, the French idea of what a sausage is, is very different from the British take on the matter. That’s a whole other story though.
The process is the same with the tomatoes, except you may mix the fruit’s flesh into the meat mixture as well, which is however not recommended for the potatoes. (You can easily whip up a mash, or even hash browns from the potato scooping!)
Place the potato and tomato tops back on the veg (as if a little hat) and you can make sure they hold together with a toothpick or skewer.
If using a heavy duty cast iron casserole as described above, heat a little oil before placing your vegetables, tightly next to one another at the bottom of the pan. Add a little water to prevent them from sticking, place the lid back on, and let your dish gently cook on medium heat until the meat is fully cooked and the potatoes tender. The tomatoes might break slightly and form a delicious sauce at the bottom of the pan.
As a kid, we loved to smash the cooked stuffed veggies together and mix it with a generous helping of crème fraîche. The grown ups might have topped their plates with extra parsley and avoided the mashing… (and probably ate most of the tomatoes while we were focused on the potatoes!)
Stuffed vegetables are one of my favourite comfort foods, but as a vegetarian I of course do not cook the traditional family recipe anymore but replace the meat with seasoned rice, couscous and various vegetables… Since settling in the UK, I don’t think I have stuffed a potato either, but peppers, courgettes and aubergines have become more frequent in my repertoire.
A few nights ago, I felt a very strong craving for some stuffed tomatoes and was absolutely not in a carb-y mood, so instead created a nut-based stuffing.
I used roasted mixed nuts (I´m sure you could use whatever nuts you fancy; our mix included almonds, cashews, peanuts and hazelnuts I think) and gave them a good seeing to with pestle and mortar to hand… (you could use a food processor, I just don´t like them and the amount of washing up they create!)
I then roughly chopped a couple of big button mushrooms which I slowly fried in a little olive oil with some crushed garlic and black pepper. When the mushrooms where suitably tender, I added the nuts, together with a whole packet of fresh curly leaf parsley – for the love of god, if you´re buying from a supermarket, never use the flat stuff, the flavour is indeed as flat as the leaves! – and some leftover fresh basil.
I suggest any Greek readers stop right here, before I offend them by saying I also diced and melted half a packet of feta cheese for the salty, tangy taste and as a bit of a binder into the mixture, before stuffing the tomatoes with it all. With the hats back on top and after around 15 minutes in the oven at around 200 degrees celsius in a lightly greased baking tray you’ve got a delicious mid-week light supper or a nice side dish.
Unlike Arge (most of the time anyway), I am not particularly methodical in my cooking. I like to experiment; guesstimate portion sizes and season as I go. I understand this might seem a little daunting to those who are not used to cooking; but as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as a “proper recipe”. To me, like many things in life, it is merely an invitation…
With this in mind, and for ease of your own experiments, below is an attempt at a summary…
Nut-stuffed tomatoes (serves 2)
- 2 large tomatoes
(the Buffalo variety will probably work best, but you can work with what you’ve got… Having said that, I would try and find the best possible tomatoes you can where you live!)
- 120 – 150 roasted mixed nuts
(use whichever kind of nuts you fancy, and if you don’t want to buy the pre-roasted kind, simply pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees and pop them in for 5 minutes or so)
- 100 grams fresh curly leaf parsley, roughly chopped
(and remember NEVER use the flat stuff!)
- 15 grams fresh chives, roughly chopped
(a few stems… probably just under half a packet if you buy it from a supermarket)
- A handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 medium mushrooms
- 2 garlic cloves, seriously crushed
- 80 – 100 grams Feta cheese
(and for the love of your Greek friends, don’t use the nice stuff!)
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Olive oil, enough for frying and lightly greasing a baking tray or loaf tin
- Cut the top off the tomatoes – probably half a centimetre below the stem (this might change depending on the size of the tomato!), and hollow them out by gently running a sharp knife around the edges of the fruit. Scoop the flesh out with a teaspoon and set aside.
- Using a pestle and mortar, create a coarse nut powder. In the absence of a pestle and mortar, place your nuts in a ziplock bag, and go at them with a rolling pin while thinking of the state of the world.
- Chop your herbs… If your parsley is lovely, green, fragrant and tender, keep the stalks as well. Chop it somewhere between rough and fine (I told you I’m not the recipe guy here!)
- Dice the feta
- Now all your ingredients are prepared, you’re ready to go! Preheat the oven to around 200 degrees C
- Roughly chop your mushrooms, crush and roughly chop the garlic. Heat a little olive oil on medium to high eat in a frying pan.
- Gently fry the mushrooms and garlic together. Let the mushrooms release some water before adding black better to taste. Tempting though it may be to add salt at this stage, you may come to regret it when you add the feta later if you do so!
- Add the herbs and continue frying until they begin to slightly wilt and release their fragrance. Mix in the nuts.
- Roughly chop and stir in the tomato flesh you set aside earlier.
- Reduce the heat before adding the feta until it melts slightly and helps bind the nut, herbs and mushroom mixture.
- The whole process frying process shouldn’t take much more than 10 minutes, and after letting it cool slightly, you’ll be ready to stuff your tomatoes.
- While the stuffing cools, lightly grease a baking tray, loaf tin or any other suitably sized piece of ovenware.
- Stuff the tomatoes and pop their tops back on. I found the stuffing to be sufficiently ‘sticky’ that the top adhered to the tomatoes just fine – if yours don’t, you can hold them together with a toothpick or part of a skewer.
- Pop the tomatoes on the baking tray and pop the lot in the middle shelf of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the tomato skins begin to break
- Enjoy yourself!