Don’t tell my Eastern European forebears, but I don’t really like stuffed cabbage or stuffed peppers or anything that includes that mixture of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce. I even have a hard time with dolmas, unless they significantly flavored with tart lemon juice and the rice-otherstuff ratio is leaning way on the side of the otherstuff.
This weakness has come in handy while rethinking stuffed peppers for my darling Retrogrouch, who has recently decided to cut out all grains, legumes, potatoes, and sugar in his diet. He’s done quite well for himself, but it makes dinnertime a challenge if we’re not eating salad and a piece of meat. I often make stuffed peppers out of Chinese stirfry or fried rice, mixing in the rice and some raw egg, and then baking it. But it occurred to me that I could omit the rice altogether.
To use up a block of tofu we had in the refrigerator from his regular diet days, I thought I’d make that old Sichuan standby, ma po tofu. I’m almost satisfied with Fuchsia Dunlop’s version, but I only had ground pork, not ground beef, and a head of savoy cabbage that wasn’t getting any younger, plus some crimson chard.
So I did my version of Ivy Manning’s Adaptable Feast, a cookbook with facing pages for adaptable recipes for mixed households (vegetarian/carnivore). I made ma po for myself, and made no rice, ma po-flavored pork and brassica stuffed peppers for Retrogrouch. I should write a cookbook series for all kinds of couples containing one normal and one crazy-ass person. Think of the possibilities! What would be excellent — not identifying which person in the couple is supposed to be the crazy-ass one. In theory, it would be a cookbook wholly devoted to de-normativizing diets. But we could still feel smug about our own niche. Then everyone would be happy and dinnertime would cease to be a cesspool of argument.
The stuffed peppers turned out really well, actually, and I even managed one appetizing photo in a group that all looked like two Buddha-bellied gents in jaunty hats vomiting up vividly colorful insides.
And p.s. I also figured out the secret of ma po tofu: a big handful of cubed, raw savoy cabbage tossed in just prior to serving. The crunch breaks up the monotonous softness of the tofu and mince.
There’s no reason you couldn’t substitute the ground pork for ground beef, or even chicken. The green peppers can be swapped out with red peppers if you prefer that flavor, too. This is a casual recipe, meant for adaptation based on what you have on hand.
Sichuan Stuffed Peppers, Ma Po Style
- 2 small green bell peppers that can sit upright
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, divided
- 6 oz. ground pork
- 1/2 cup red onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3-4 cups chopped leaves of any leafy brassica: chard, cabbage, bok choi, etc.
- 1/4 cup green onions, chopped in one-inch lengths
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan bean paste (douban jian) or substitute another chili bean paste
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans
- a few Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup stock or water
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- light soy sauce, white pepper, chili oil to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Wash the peppers. Slice off the tops of the peppers carefully, leaving a little hat for baking. Clean the insides of the peppers, removing seeds and the inner ribs. Rub the insides of the pepper with the sesame oil and a little salt.
Place the peppers in the oven (upright without the lids) while preparing the stirfry. Don’t forget about them! You only want to soften them up a bit, no more than 10 minutes.
Brown pork until deeply brown on med-high heat. After pork has lost its pinkness, add onion, garlic and ginger. (For the rest of the browning period, watch so aromatics don’t burn.) If at any time it seems the stirfry is burning, add a small amount of water or stock to cool down the pan briefly. It will heat up again once the water has evaporated.
Turn heat down to medium, add the Sichuan bean paste and fermented black beans, and Sichuan peppercorns, and saute until they release a nice, fragrant smell. Add cabbage or other greens with a quarter cup or so of water or stock to deglaze the pan. Saute until cabbage is softened but not completely limp. This might take longer with cabbage than a softer green like chard.
Remove from heat and add the green onions. Toss to combine. Remove the peppers from the oven and let cool just enough to handle.
Taste the stirfry. If it lacks salt, add some light soy sauce to taste. Add white pepper if you’d like a little more spice. Chili oil is another option.
Lightly beat 2 eggs with the sugar. Add the egg mixture to the stirfry and combine well.
With a soup spoon or small serving spoon, spoon the stirfry into the peppers, packing tightly. Add a little hat to each pepper. Leftovers can be eaten as is with leaves of lettuce as little wraps, or you could quickly blanch extra cabbage leaves in water and make little cabbage wraps that bake alongside the peppers.
Bake for another 10 minutes or so, just until the eggs are fully set (peek under lid to see if egg has solidified and turned opaque).
To serve, suggest that the diner cut the pepper in half while still upright, then cut off pieces of pepper and filling from the two halves that result.