Lamb and Rice Stuffed Peppers

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By Emily Paster

I suppose there is no need to mention (again) that my husband is not as adventurous an eater as I am. As a result of to his aversion to seafood and his avoidance of pork, I have a fairly limited universe of meats to cook with at home. Chicken and turkey are fine; I can even get away with the very occasional duck dish. Beef works of course, but neither one of us wants to eat beef more than once or twice a week for environmental and health reasons. No wonder I am trying to cook more vegetarian dishes!

My husband has never been wild about lamb either, finding it to be somewhat gamey. He certainly isn't alone in that view.  But recently I had a helpful discovery: ground lamb has a milder flavor than whole cuts of lamb. I had not really worked with ground lamb much before I started cooking out of the Jerusalem cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi. (See this post for my review of Jerusalem.) But several of my favorite dishes from that book call for ground lamb and in making those dishes, we learned that my husband finds ground lamb to be downright palatable. So, I have happily added it to my repertoire.

I find ground lamb easily at my local Whole Foods. I have also found it from some of the small meat purveyors at the Oak Park Farmers' Market, which opened this past Saturday. A good butcher shop should have it as well, particularly one that specializes in Halal meats. Raising lamb for food is resource-intensive, like raising  beef cattle is, so we still limit our consumption of it. One piece of good news, though, is that it is easier to find grass-fed lamb than grass-fed beef — at least in my experience. Grass-fed animals tend to have more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed animals do and are therefore more nutritious.

Ground lamb is a very versatile ingredient and you will find it used in Greek cuisine as well as Middle Eastern. You can make lamb burgers and lamb meatballs, using ground lamb exclusively or by combining it with ground beef. In this recipe, I managed to stretch 10 oz. of ground lamb to stuff six peppers by combining it with rice and dried fruit. That's a great way to get the taste and nutrition of meat while stretching your grocery dollar. I top the peppers with a tangy yogurt sauce to cut the richness of the lamb and the sweetness of the dried fruit.

This recipe for peppers stuffed with a lamb and rice mixture is one that I created but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that it was inspired by some of the recipes in Jerusalem. The use of dried fruit and pine nuts, the spices I picked — all of these will seem familiar to anyone who has leafed through that award-winning book. That's what a great cookbook does, in my view. It not only gives you great recipes, but it also changes the way you view familiar ingredients.

Lamb and Rice Stuffed Peppers
Serves 2-3

6 red or yellow bell peppers
2 TB olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 shallots, diced
10 oz. ground lamb
1/2 tsp. each ground cardamom, allspice and cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cumin
Pinch red pepper flakes
3/4 cup prunes or dried apricots, or a combination, diced
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup rice
2 cups chicken broth or water
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
For yogurt sauce:
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350. To prepare the peppers for stuffing, cut the tops off the peppers and clean out the inner ribs and seeds. Find a baking dish that holds the peppers snugly and grease the inside. Place the peppers in the baking dish and set aside while you make the filling.

To make the filling, heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion and shallots until translucent. Add the ground lamb and stir to break it up. Cook the lamb until it is browned. Drain as much of the accumulated fat as possible from the skillet. Season the lamb mixture well with the spices and salt and pepper. Add the rice and dried fruit and toss to combine. Pour in the chicken broth or water and bring to a boil. Once the liquid in boiling, cover the skillet and turn the heat to low. Simmer until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Add the pine nuts and chopped parsley to the mixture. Stuff the peppers with the lamb and rice mixture until all six are full. Pour a small amount of water or broth in the bottom of the baking dish just until it is 1/8 inch deep. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the peppers are tender, 45 minutes to an hour.

While the peppers are baking, make the yogurt sauce by whisking together the Greek yogurt, the lemon zest the lemon juice and the minced garlic. Refrigerate until read to use. To serve, top each pepper with a dollop of the yogurt sauce and garnish with additional parsley if desired.

Have you cooked with ground lamb before? What is your favorite way to use this ingredient?

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