In the 1970s, I rented the second floor of an apartment building in Tehran. My landlord and his wife were Assyrians who left Baghdad for the then calmer politics of Iran. Assyrians are an ancient people of the Middle East who have been subjected to some of the harshest treatment of all minority groups in the region, repeatedly being victimized by conquerors and their neighbors. They are a Christians, affiliated with several denominations, the largest of which are aligned with the Roman Catholic Church.
During my time living upstairs, the Naziris often sent up home-cooked food for me to taste. One of my favorites were her stuffed peppers. Mrs. Naziri's recipe called for several ingredients my mother never included in them but to me more greatly enhance the delicious flavor of bell peppers.
Fall is a perfect time to make this dish as taste-quality of fresh peppers is at its peak and they are available in large numbers at local farmer's markets. Select ones of medium size with flat bottoms and tops so they can stand up straight in the roasting pan and not fall over.
Assyrian Stuffed Peppers
6 medium sized bell peppers
1-1 1/4 lbs. lean ground beef or lamb
1/3 cup basmati rice
1/3 cup yellow split peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic minced fine
1 medium onion chopped fine
2 tablespoons fresh parsley chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh basil chopped fine
1 tablespoon bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes
2-3 bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Wash the peppers thoroughly under cold running water. Place them on their sides and using a sharp kitchen knife remove their tops. Set the tops aside. Using a spoon, scoop out all the seeds and membranes inside the peppers and discard. Rinse again in cold water and drain on a cloth.
Place the rice and split peas into two to three cups of water. Bring to a boil and allow to cook until about half done. Rinse under cold water until warm to the touch.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the meat, peas, rice, garlic, parsley, basil, bread crumbs, cumin, salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix all the ingredients until they are uniformly distributed which should be about five minutes or so.
Use a small roasting pan with a tight fitting lid. Cover the bottom of the pan with about half of the tomato sauce. Stuff each pepper creating a little dome of filling at the top of each. Press the filling into the pepper being careful not to split the side. As you fill the peppers, place them open side up in the roasting pan. Distribute any extra filling among the six peppers.
Remove the stems from the pepper tops and place the tops like crowns on each pepper. Pour the diced tomatoes and remaining sauce into the roasting pan spooning a little on top of each pepper. Add the bay leaves to the sauce, cover and bake or an hour. Remove the pan lid and return the peppers to the oven for another 15 minutes. Serve with a crusty bread or naan.