Foods and recipes don’t only nourish our bodies, but they also sustain fond traditions and memories. Some dishes are easy, reliable, family favorites while others might be old and beloved holiday staples. Alexandra Stratou understands this well. In Cooking with Loula (Artisan Books, 2016), she invites readers to visit the kitchen where her family has met and cooked and eaten together for generations. From Greek classics to modern meals, Stratou presents a variety of favorite, satisfying, and soulful recipes from a real Greek family.
The history of my relationship with food can be separated into before and after cooking school. Before cooking school, I never read recipes, I loved food, and I loved sharing meals. I used my taste memory to get the results I wanted and only called home for help if I couldn’t taste my way through something. After cooking school, there was a right and wrong way to approach cooking. There was a process, an order, and specific recipes, and I acquired a sort of absurd attitude that led me to cook things without really listening to or feeling what was going on with the food I had in front of me. I ended up believing that I didn’t really need anyone or anything to show me what needed to be done — I was suddenly all knowing. But when I tried to make stuffed tomatoes, twice, I failed grandly! Testing the recipe for this book and seeing that, when I followed my family’s age-old recipe, I could make fantastic stuffed tomatoes, I was reassured. The weight of having to succeed at everything alone, just because I had become a chef, was lifted off my shoulders. I was now accompanied by the past generations of my family.
• 6 medium tomatoes
• 6 green bell peppers
• 1-1/2 cups (350 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 onions, grated
• 2 cloves garlic, crushed
• 3/4 cup (150 grams) uncooked short-grain rice
• 2/3 cup (80 grams) pine nuts, toasted
• Handful each of dark and golden raisins (about 1/2 cup, 40 grams total)
• 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley leaves (about 1/2 bunch)
• 1-1/2 tablespoons dried mint
• Sugar, as needed
• Salt and pepper
• 6 tablespoons breadcrumbs
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
1. Cut a small cap off the tops of the tomatoes and bell peppers and reserve. Remove the seeds and white pith from the insides of the bell peppers and discard. Scoop out the insides of the tomatoes using a spoon, working over a bowl to catch all of the pulp. Place the hollow bell peppers and tomatoes in a baking dish, ensuring they fit snugly. Purée the tomato pulp in a blender or food processor until smooth.
2. Add about 6 tablespoons of the olive oil to a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and the garlic and cook until soft and translucent. Add the puréed tomato, increase the heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the sauce has thickened and little liquid remains. Reserve 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce in a small bowl for later. With the frying pan still on the heat, add the rice, pine nuts, and raisins and stir to coat with tomato sauce. Cook the mixture for 8 minutes, stirring it every so often to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Take the frying pan off the heat and add the parsley, mint, 1 teaspoon sugar, salt, and pepper. Stir well.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 C).
4. Season the inside of each vegetable with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. Fill each with the rice mixture until three-quarters full, using about 1-1/2 tablespoons of filling. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to each, then cover with their reserved caps. Brush the outsides of the vegetables with olive oil, and sprinkle them with breadcrumbs. Add enough water to the baking dish to reach one-quarter of the height of the vegetables, and add the reserved tomato sauce and the tomato paste to the water.
5. Bake in the oven for a little over an hour, or until the tomatoes and bell peppers are wrinkly like raisins. Add water while baking if the dish goes dry.
Tip: In Greece, dishes like this one are called ladera, which means “stewed in oil”; this is why the quantity of olive oil called for in this recipe is much more than what I would regularly use.
More from Cooking with Loula:
Excerpted from Cooking with Loula by Alexandra Stratou (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. Photographs by Ioanna Roufopoulou.