I had a damascene conversion to vegetables in the summer of 2004. Actually I had no choice. For eight weeks, I was not allowed to eat dairy products or animal fats and proteins, except for lean, skinless chicken. It wasn’t that I didn’t much like vegetables before. It was just that I had always regarded them as a support act for the main protein event. Suddenly, if I didn’t become more creative with my veg cooking, I was going to die of meal-time boredom. So, I made an effort and discovered that I had been missing out.
One of the things I found myself doing frequently was wrapping and stuffing. There were lots of other things I could and did do (including far too many things with beetroot), but gathering delicious things together in little rolls and parcels produced many of the summer’s hits – not just for me, but for the meat-eaters around me who didn’t know what they were going to unearth in their peppers, vine leaves, aubergines et al. I still wouldn’t choose to give up meat and dairy products, but if it happened again I wouldn’t feel cheated.
This series was first published in The Sunday Times in June 2005.
Red peppers stuffed with tomatoes and goat's cheese
These baked peppers taste as vibrant as they look and, as well as making a good starter, especially with the optional goat’s cheese, they come into their own as a side-dish for grilled fish or meat. The herb doesn’t have to be basil, but bear in mind that herbs such as thyme will be better if you cook them with the tomatoes, rather than adding them afterwards. Whichever you choose, you’ll have one of those useful dishes that can be served straight from the oven, left sitting around for 20 minutes (which is how I like it) or allowed to cool completely.
3 medium or large red peppers, ideally more square-shaped than triangular
15-18 small sweet tomatoes, such as pomodorino (baby plum)
3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Caster sugar (optional)
Red wine vinegar, eg Forum cabernet sauvignon (optional)
18 or so basil leaves
6 discs or wedges of goat’s cheese, either soft or crumbly (approx 35-40g each), or 6 tbsp freshly grated parmesan (optional)
6 tbsp breadcrumbs (optional if using cheese)
Preheat the oven to 200C/fan oven 180C/gas mark 6.
Halve the peppers and remove the seeds and pith – you can leave the stlk on for decoration if you like. Halve the tomatoes. Oil the base and sides of an ovenproof dish or tin. Put the pepper halves in, skin-side down. If they are more triangular than square in shape, press on them with the flat of your hand, but not so hard that they split, and use the side of the dish to prop them up if necessary.
Put some garlic in each, then 5 or 6 tomato halves (no neat arrangement necessary) and season with salt and pepper. If your tomatoes are not absolutely sweet and sharp, sprinkle them with a tiny amount of sugar and a few drops of vinegar. Pour about a dessertspoon of oil over each filled pepper.
Cook in the oven for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven, but leave the oven on.
Tear up the basil leaves and put them on the tomatoes. If using goat’s cheese, place it on top and then cover with breadcrumbs (if using). If using parmesan, add the breadcrumbs first. If you’re not using either cheese, just add the breadcrumbs.
Pour a little more oil over the top of the crumbs and put the dish back in the oven for 3-5 minutes, until the crumbs are crisp and the goat’s cheese, if used, has melted.
Original photograph by Lisa Linder