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Try some Un-Stuffed Peppers

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This time of year, the fragrance of sweet peppers and paprika swirl through my kitchen. It's a Hungarian tradition in my family - some of the first ripe, green bell peppers picked from the garden are stuffed with ground meat, onions, rice and lots of paprika. The stuffed peppers cook on the stove in a pot of bubbling tomato puree. When the rice is cooked to tenderness, the peppers are ready to eat. But first, the sauce of pureed tomatoes is thickened with a roux of flour and fat, chopped onions and more paprika.

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Hungarians do love paprika. According to Carolyn Banfalvi in her book, "Food Wine Budapest," each Hungarian consumes more than a pound of the uniquely flavored ground dark red pepper annually. In Hungary, there is no such thing as "a pinch" of paprika. There, it is scooped into food by the tablespoon.

I've already cooked up a couple of large pots of stuffed peppers this season. But because I've been cutting back on the amount of meat I eat, I wanted to create a dish that would pair the familiar flavors I've always loved - peppers and ground sweet Hungarian paprika - in a meatless entree.

First, to boost nutritional value, I cooked up some brown rice rather than using the traditional white rice my grandma always mixed into the ground meat used for stuffing peppers. Brown rice is the whole grain with only its inedible outer hull removed. Brown rice retains its nutrient-rich bran and germ. White rice, on the other hand, is both milled and polished, which removes the bran and germ along with all the nutrients that reside within these valuable layers. Brown rice is a good source of fiber.

Some people shy away from brown rice because of the long cooking time involved. To make it more convenient, cook a large quantity of brown rice and freeze what won't be needed at that time.

While the rice is cooking, onions are sautéed until they are soft. Small chunks of bell peppers are sautéed until they are crisp-tender. I minced a fiery Bulgarian pepper from my little garden. If you like a kick of heat, add a hot pepper of your choice. If you don't care for a tingling tongue, just leave out the hot pepper. A tablespoon of sweet Hungarian paprika adds depth of flavor and lovely color to the meatless dish. Puree a few juicy, garden-fresh tomatoes to stir into the un-stuffed pepper mixture.

Hungarians love sour cream, too. I couldn't resist layering paprika-spiked sour cream between the rice and pepper mixture. Reduced-fat sour cream works fine in this recipe.

Un-Stuffed Pepper Casserole can be layered into a baking dish a day before baking and then stored - covered - in the refrigerator. When the casserole has been refrigerated, it will take a little longer to bake in the oven. Soft white cheese tops the dish during the last minutes of baking, melting to create a creamy topping.

It's not traditional. It's not Hungarian. But Un-Stuffed Pepper Casserole will definitely be a small step toward an annual consumption of a pound of paprika. Hmmm, I wonder how many tablespoons are in a pound of paprika.

Un-Stuffed Pepper Casserole

3/4 cup uncooked brown rice

1 1/2 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 hot pepper, such as jalapeno or Serrano, seeds removed, minced

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups pureed fresh tomatoes

1/2 cup sour cream

4 ounces (1 cup) shredded Monterey Jack cheese or Havarti slices

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch round or square glass baking dish.

Put rice and water in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Push bay leaf and garlic onto a toothpick and add to pot. Bring to a boil. Stir once. Cover with lid. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for 40 minutes, or until water has disappeared from pot. Remove pot from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove lid. Pull out the toothpick with bay leaf and garlic and discard. Fluff rice with fork and set aside.

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Add chopped onion and sauté until soft, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add all of the chopped peppers and minced hot pepper. Sauté another 5 or 6 minutes, until peppers are crisp-tender. Add 1 tablespoon paprika and salt and stir to coat all of the vegetables. Transfer cooked vegetables to a large mixing bowl. Add cooked rice and pureed tomatoes. Mix well.

In a small bowl, stir sour cream with remaining 1 teaspoon paprika.

Spread half of the rice mixture in a lightly greased 9-inch round or square baking dish. Pour sour cream mixture over the rice mixture. Top with remaining rice mixture. At this point, casserole can be covered and refrigerated.

Bake, uncovered, in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 minutes. The casserole should be bubbling around the edges. If casserole has been refrigerated, it will take longer to bake. Remove from oven and top with cheese. Return to oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, until cheese is melted. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Use a mix of colorful bell peppers in this casserole. I used 2 green peppers and 1 red pepper.

--Cut tomatoes in half and give them a gentle squeeze to release some of the seeds before putting into blender or food processor to puree. You don't need to peel the tomatoes before pureeing. It will take 3 to 4 medium-sized tomatoes to yield 3 cups of puree.

--Be sure to use the freshest sweet Hungarian paprika you can find. This is a good time to purchase a new tin or buy a small amount from the bulk spice section of your local food co-op. Store paprika in the refrigerator to extend its shelf life.

--Prepare this casserole in individual serving-sized baking dishes. Your family will think they are eating a gourmet meal.

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