Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's Not About the Stuffed Peppers... It's the Story

It has been a while, my dear friend. I’ve been away from this far too long. My path over the last couple of years took me away from the things that have meant the most to me and I’m very pleased to be back. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice to say, I have had a tremendous opportunity to reflect. And now with the holiday season at our door step and slightly crisper air outside, the timing couldn’t be more perfect to revisit my blog. So here it goes…

If you were to do a web search for Emily V. Thornton, or any facsimile of her name, you’ll get many hits. I tried. You won’t, however, find the person I’m referring to. There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps it’s because she never owned a computer, or because she lived a humble life, or because her only claim to fame was spending the first half of her life wanting to raise a child and the last half enjoying doing just that. The last of four children, Emily Vanide Fealser was born to Austrian immigrants in a small house in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1924. Her father, Amos, ran the family dry cleaning business while her mother, Mary, tended to raising the family. Mary was a very proper woman who was never seen without her light makeup or in anything except a dress. The idea of trousers was appalling to her. She was a nurturing mother whose children all grew up to live very successful lives in and around the blue collar city of Erie.

As time went by, as time inevitably does, Emma grew wary of life in the declining industrial city so she struck out and away. After a failed marriage, some time in both California and Florida, and fast approaching her 40’s, she found herself back in Erie. There she met a salesman. Louis sold everything from insurance to cars to real estate. He followed the money and had done pretty well for himself in doing so. One of the most affable and free spirited people she’d ever met, Emma fell for him. During a cross country road trip in the mid 60’s, they eloped in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Louis and Emma’s story is full of fun, adventure and happiness but they both really wanted to have a child. Unable to conceive, they decided on adoption. This is where I come into the story… and I promise I’ll get to the food soon enough. In October of 1966, they took home a 3 day old baby boy that they named Louis Thornton Jr. –Me. While I wish I could have known my parents when they were younger, because they sounded like a lot of fun, I was the benefactor of all of the attention and love that comes with more mature parents.

Now to the food… Most of what we ate was out of convenience. Mom was not the June Cleaver type. By the time she started a family, she had not honed her domestic skills. She’d been busy enjoying life. I kind of admire that about her. I remember lots of Kielbasa braised away with cabbage and caraway seeds served with horseradish. For lunch, there might be small pumpernickel rounds with limburger cheese, a thin slice of onion and sprinkled with paprika. Breakfast was raisin bread toast with jam and butter. Most of my friends didn’t stay for dinner but this is what I knew and I enjoyed it. In fact, I’ve never had a problem trying new things and I believe my mom and grandmother played a huge part in my interest in all things food.

Now I’ve enjoyed street food as well as fine dining in all parts of the world. From Dim Sum in Hong Kong to Fish and Chips on the coast of Britain, from San Francisco to New York to Miami, I have been blessed to be able to taste the flavors of so many places and cultures. Still, if you ask me about what I liked as a kid, the litany might be extremely unimpressive to any other foodie. Some years ago, my mom and I were talking and she mentioned that she hadn’t cooked for me in a while and she wanted to. Being questioned, I told her that I really missed her stuffed peppers. A few days later, I walked into mom and dad’s house and the smells made me feel like I was 10 again. It may have been that long since mom made them for me.

While I realize there is nothing auspicious, unique or remotely special about a stuffed peppers, to me this was as wonderful a meal as I’d ever had. If rice, meat and spices combined in a pepper with tomato sauce harkens Hamburger Helper to you, I understand. To me, it’s a foodie way to sum up the love and care that my mom had for me. It was also the last meal she would ever cook for me. Two months after the birth of my youngest daughter, now 6 years old, and one month after mom’s 80th birthday, she passed away suddenly. While failing in her later years, her life had been one that she enjoyed. She’d had fun. Her laugh was as jovial on the last day we spoke as I remembered almost 4 decades earlier. My father, now 91 years old, is still surviving and lives in a little condo with his dog Lucky. The picture frames are full of the good times he and my mother had.

So while I’m offering up to you today a simple recipe that you can download from just about any cooking site, it’s the story that matters to me. I wish I could tell you I pulled this from an old recipe box (mom did have one). That might make the story a little better but that’s not really how things worked in our family. While I adapted this recipe myself, I still got a little choked up putting it on the plate. This is the first stuffed pepper I’ve had since mom made them for me. It was heaven.

Stuffed Bell Peppers

Note: My mom used only ground beef. I chose equal parts ground beef, pork and veal. Some recipes will call for you to brown the meat before stuffing the pepper but I like the juices from the meat to be a part of the sauce. Cooking time is longer stuffing the peppers with raw meat so if you’re in a hurry, browning the meat first will save about 45 minutes of baking time. Lastly, I simmer the sauce separately beforehand. This is another step that can be omitted but I think it develops the flavors a little more.

4 bell peppers, any color
1 ½ cups cooked long grain white rice
½ lb ground beef
½ lb ground pork
½ lb ground veal
1 medium onion diced, divided
4 cloves garlic diced, divided
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin
1 egg
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
Fresh grated parmesan cheese to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut the tops off the peppers (reserve one or two tops) and remove the seeds and ribs. Blanch the peppers in the water making sure to submerge entire pepper. Remove to an ice bath after 2 minutes. Dice the reserved pepper tops.

In a large sauté pan, sauté ½ of the onion and ½ of the garlic in a tsp of olive oil over medium heat just until fragrant. Add the can of tomatoes, reduce heat to low and simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

In a mixing bowl, combine the rice, ground meat, diced pepper tops, remaining onions and garlic along with the egg, paprika, cumin and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stuff each pepper with meat and rice mixture. If there is left over mixture, add it to the sauce.

Arrange the stuffed peppers in a baking dish upright. Pour the sauce over the top of the peppers after it has simmered 10-15 minutes. Grate a layer of fresh parmesan cheese over the top and bake for an hour or until the internal temperature of the pepper is 160 degrees.

Let rest for 10 minutes and serve.

Serves 4.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well I am going to love this!