Thursday, August 05, 2010

Orzo stuffed peppers with zucchini and ricotta salata cheese

I'm trying out a food section of HH for size just to see how it fits. Truth be told, I do a lot more with food in my daily life than anything else (yes, even more than decorating my apartment.) We'll see how this goes and feel free to let me know in the comments section your thoughts. Too many pics? Not enough pics? More of the actual recipe? Anything.

The other night I decided to make spicy orzo stuffed peppers with zucchini and ricotta salada cheese on a whim. For this, and most of what I make, I don't really use recipes. I just cook with the knowledge I have of food and preparation in general.

Also, I prefer to cook with whatever is in season. Everything is more fresh and tasty and it is a lot easier to buy locally when you stick to what is in season. In this case, bell peppers and farm fresh zucchini fit the bill.

Now, let me explain about the canned tomatoes. In many cases, canned tomatoes are the better option for your stove top cooking. Even if you have a garden filled with 80 tomato plants and hundreds of ripe tomatoes (oh how I wish this were true) canned tomatoes work so much better. I'll show you why in a bit.

Red pepper flakes make this meal spicy and tend to enhance the all of the separate flavors of the dish. You really only need a healthy pinch for one pound of orzo.

Once you have cooked down your sofrito (or mirepoix, basically the same thing but it's really whatever you decide to use here) hopefully you will have some browning going on in your saute pan. That is good news because once you deglaze with your canned tomatoes all of those brown bits will melt into the filling and flavor it beautifully.

Do we all know how to deglaze or what it means to deglaze? Alright, this is why canned tomatoes work better than fresh. The canned tomatoes are stored in their own juices (not to mention they come pre diced and dicing tomatoes can be the biggest pain in the ass and a real buzz kill to the cooking process.)

When your sofrito is cooked down and you have golden brown crust all over your pan, turn that heat up to high and pour in about a cup to a cup and a half of your canned fruit.

Set the can aside, break out your wooden spoon and start turning and scraping the edges to get all that browned goodness off the sides of the pan and into your, what is soon to be, filling.

If you did this right, your saute pan will be clean of brown bits and it you will have a soupy consistency in the pan. You are not done yet. You cannot fill peppers with soup!

You have to cook the tomato juice down and basically let it evaporate. You can continue to do this on high heat if and only if you are pressed for time and you promise not to step away from the stove for a second. Or you can do it on medium-high heat. In both cases, you'll want to stir on a consistent basis.

You will know when you are done when you scrape your wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan and the filling doesn't swim in to fill it right away. I tried to demonstrate this with the picture above. Notice the difference between the soup step and the finished step.

Now, during this time you should be cooking your orzo but you must make sure to undercook it. This is important. I let mine boil away for no longer than six minutes but I tend to drain it at around five minutes. However, before you drain, make sure you reserve some of that all important pasta water (see above.)

I should also mention that little pot to the right of the pasta pot is filled with about a quarter of a cup to a half a cup of chicken stock (if you are making this strictly vegetarian, be sure to substitute with vegetable stock.) Keep it on a very low heat (you don't want it to evaporate) and I'll show you why you need this shortly.

Alright, pasta is drained and I incorporated my filling and while stirring, I noticed it wasn't the consistency I wanted. This is where the pasta water comes in. When you are stirring, you don't want to feel as if you are working too hard to stir everything and you'll want to "hear" it.

You know when you are stirring macaroni and cheese and you put the cheese in and the milk and the butter and you can hear the noodles and the gooeyness? Well, that is how this should be. So, add the pasta water with a heavy hand by the spoonful until you reach audible gooeyness.

Before you add your ricotta salata cheese, make sure to taste the orzo to make sure you seasoned properly. By season I mean salt and pepper and you should have salted and peppered every layer in the saute pan (onion, garlic, zucchini.) Add the red pepper flakes after the zucchini.

There should be a couple minutes in between adding the red pepper flakes and the tomatoes. This is to make sure you cook out the rawness that tends to linger in the flakes. Make sure you salt and pepper the inside of your raw bell peppers, too.

Also, before you drop your raw pasta, you must add a very healthy handful of kosher salt to the boiling water. Why? Well, this is the one and only chance you have to flavor the pasta.


So, are we good on seasoning techniques? I sure do hope so!

The ricotta salata has a wonderful slightly salty yet deliciously creamy taste for a semi-hard goat's milk cheese so remember that if you add or when you add your final seasonings.

If you think we are done you have another thing coming! You must have a crunchy, cheesy topping and for that you will need a quarter cup of plain bread crumbs, some roughly chopped fresh basil and a lot of parmigiano reggiano cheese. Freshly grated of course. None of this shaking it out of a plastic bottle, stuff. Unacceptable.

All you need to do here is add your bread crumbs, grate in as much cheese as you want and add your basil. Mix it all up and then just put a ton of it on each pepper. The more the merrier. Yeah. Some is going to fall of but that is a minor situation.

After you put on your bread crumb topping, drizzle just a little bit of olive oil on the top just to help along the browning process. Then,. take your chicken stock off the stove and pour it into the bottom of your baking dish. You don't need much, only about a half a cup or so.

This technique does many things. It basically creates a steam bath for the peppers. It keeps the orzo and the peppers moist and makes sure the crust is crunchy instead of soggy.

Then you must foil the entire dish to lock the steam in. Make sure your oven is preheated to about 425 degrees. Slide them in and forget about them for 45 minutes. After that time, take off the foil and bake for no more than three or four minutes. This is just to make sure your bread crumbs are brown and crunchy.

I served mine with a very simple salad of romaine hearts, grapefruit wedges and a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, champagne vinegar, anchovy paste and garlic.


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