It all really began in Mykonos, Greece, when I became a partner at the Orpheas Cafe and Wine Bar, in 1989. I had already been working there a few summer seasons and had made my contribution to the business and the island, by bringing American and European style breakfast to the cafe. Before I had arrived, they (everybody who sold breakfast) served a few slices of bread with some small, prepackaged butter and a small assortment of rather flavorless jams with either coffee, or tea, and that was that. Sometimes hardboiled eggs could be gotten or a simple omelet, or thick Greek yogurt with honey but that was not necessarily a breakfast item, since it was always available.
Then along I came and showed them about eggs over easy, or over medium, or not over at all. Cereals piled high with fresh summer fruit. Milk shakes, smoothies, and freshly baked croissants now could accompany the butter and jam. We rocked the casbah and danced while we were squeezing the oranges. Suddenly we were a hit in the mornings and couldn’t churn out those eggs fast enough. We also noticed that we had quite a few bar owners from other parts of the island as our customers. Sure enough, a year later, all those bars whose owners we fed, were serving more fanciful breakfasts, strangely similar to what we were doing.
So it was decided that I needed to officially join the team and we would expand the business to include dinner and a wine bar, with boutique wines from all over Greece. As a twenty-something year old at the time, in the midst of Mykonos’ Golden Years (that’s another story), I had landed in heaven.
I cooked many things at Orpheas’; an eclectic mix of international cuisine. My earliest challenge was learning how to cook Greek food properly and my sources were any people whose food I liked and who would take the time to show me how it’s done. My second challenge was learning Greek.
Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes was one of the earliest and probably one of the most classic recipes I learned. Other summer vegetables, like peppers, eggplant, onions, and zucchini, can also be hollowed out and stuffed with the rice mixture. Whatever is ripe in the garden?
This is one of my favorite summer foods and brings back so many memories of life in the Aegean…
Greek Style Stuffed Tomatoes & Peppers
4 large ripe tomatoes
4 large peppers (that can ‘stand’ somewhat easily on their own)
2 medium sized onions
2 tblsp fresh chopped mint
2 tblsp fresh chopped parsley
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 toe of garlic, pressed
8 shot glasses full of round grain rice (the kind used to make risotto)
4 medium sized potatoes
freshly ground pepper
olive oil for baking dish
Preheat oven to 180 C (370 F)
The first thing you need to do is arrange the tomatoes and peppers in a baking dish big enough to allow them to all stand up next to each other, with a little space left in between to allow for potato wedges. These will also help keep peppers that do not have flat enough bottoms from tilting sideways.
One by one, slice the top off each tomato, and hollow out the insides with the help of a short knife and a soup spoon, saving that inside bit in a bowl. Take care not to pierce the skin of the tomatoes. Return each tomato back to the baking pan as you complete hollowing it out, remembering to place each ‘top’ back on its respective ‘bottom’. Do the same with the peppers, only don’t save the inside bit (the seeds) in the bowl with the tomato pulp. Those go straight into the compost.
(If you have other vegetables you would like to stuff, slice off a side –keeping it as your lid, or ‘top’; then carefully gouge out the inside with a paring knife and a spoon, saving the inside bits in the bowl with the tomato pulp. Place in the baking pan when done, together with its lid)
Traditional Greek kitchens didn’t have food processors, but they did have graters. All the inside bits in the bowl, both from the tomatoes as well as from whatever other veggies you’ve got, get grated, so that there are no large chunks of anything left in the bowl.
Now grate the two onions into the mix as well. These will keep the rice filling moist.
Finely chop the mint, parsley, and garlic, and add them to the bowl.
Add the olive oil and the seasonings and blend everything well.
I think it was my κουμπάρα (“kumbara” is a relative one acquires through a religious ceremony like a wedding, or a baptism – my daughter’s godmother is my “kumbara”; so are the best man, or woman, in a wedding) who once told me that in order to always have the right amount of rice for filling tomatoes (or any other veg you might have) one needs to calculate one (1) shot glass of rice per piece of veg. So since we are filling 4 tomatoes and 4 peppers, we will need 8 shot glasses of rice. Use only round kernel rice , the kind appropriate for making risotto, since only this kind will achieve the correct texture when cooked in the veggies.
So now add the rice, and blend everything well.
With a spoon, fill each piece of veg until just about full, while it is still sitting in the pan. Cover each with its respective lid. This will keep the rice from drying out.
Cut the potatoes into quarters, and place these pieces in the spaces between the vegetables. Sprinkle everything again with salt, pepper, and oregano, and then drizzle all the vegetables and potatoes with a little olive oil.
Bake for at least 1 hour, then carefully check a small piece of rice with a fork to make sure it is done. If not add another 15 minutes to the baking time.
When done, let everything rest until it has reached almost room temperature.
Serve with feta cheese and some crisp, freshly baked bread, and a chilled dry wine – either a white or a rosé.