What happens between inspiration and implementation is always interesting. I headed to the farmers market thinking “Provence-style stuffed tomatoes” and ended up turning the idea inside out. Bell peppers, colorful and capacious, became the stuffees, and cherry tomatoes (which looked better than the bigger ones) became the stuffers. And in between, because Provence remained in my head, I added a cushion of bread crumbs flavored with anchovies (anchovy haters, don’t leave!) and herbs, garlic and lemon, too. When I pulled the charred peppers out of the oven, the fragrance was Proustian: For that instant, I was back in the South of France, outdoors, on a sunny terrace, eating the kind of lunch that extends into evening. Where was my glass of rosé?
Nice is the stuffed-vegetable capital of France. There, the specialty is called “petits farcis,” the vegetables might be tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini or peppers, and the stuffing might be anything from a mix of those vegetables (think ratatouille, or jump across the border and contemplate caponata) to minced meat or flavored bread crumbs. The constants are herbs, garlic and olive oil.
My personal challenge with this dish — actually, with everything I cook and bake — was to see how much flavor I could pack into it; it’s a little game I play with myself in the kitchen. This time I wanted there to be enough flavor to make the dish tasty whether it was served hot, warm, room temperature or cold. The flavor-building opportunities were many, starting with the vegetables themselves, of course, but going right down to the roasting dish.
Before I even set to work, I “seasoned” the pan, coating it with oil, strewing it with garlic and fresh herbs and sprinkling it with salt and freshly ground pepper. Laying down that kind of flavor foundation — and you can do it anytime you roast — means that the cooking juices are tastier, as are the bottoms of the peppers.
In traditional petits farcis, the eggplant and zucchini are sliced the long way and hollowed out, while the peppers and tomatoes get their tops chopped off and their innards removed. For my dish, I cut the peppers in half from top to bottom — I left the base and some of the stem — making a good solid bowl to stuff. First in is the bread crumb mixture flavored with freshly grated lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and anchovies. Choose anchovies packed in oil, and don’t bother to drain off the oil before you mince or even mash them. I’m tempted to tell the anchovyphobes among you that you won’t even know they’re there (really, you won’t — at least, a couple of my friends didn’t), but you probably won’t believe me. Instead, I’ll tell you that you can skip them if you must; add more salt to the mix and a spoonful more oil. When you’ve divided the crumbs among the peppers, top with basil or any other herb you’d like.
As for the tomatoes, ripeness is everything here. Oh, and color. If you’re using red peppers, you might want to use yellow tomatoes, and if your peppers are yellow, think red tomatoes. The key word here is “crowd.” You need to crowd the tomatoes into the peppers — they should be packed in like snuggle-bunnies — and then you need to crowd the peppers into the pan. Drizzle them with oil, scatter with herbs and slide the pan into the oven to roast at high heat; yes, 450 degrees is correct.
The peppers need to roast for 45 minutes, just enough time for you to ice down the rosé.
Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick. This story originally appeared in my Everyday Dorie column for the Washington Post.