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Stuffed peppers are irresistible

Fresh bell peppers are creating a splash of color at farmers' markets these days. They seem to be acting as magnets as I am pulled directly to them, unable to turn away. Their smooth, taut skin and stems of green with bright, vivid color and a fragrance that can't be matched by any pepper in the grocery store - so fresh and so irresistible.

Every year at this time my Hungarian grandma would make her wonderful stuffed peppers. With green peppers just picked from her garden, she would create a meal in a huge pot. In a very large white enameled bowl, she would use her hands to mix ground beef and pork with lots of chopped onions and rice and generous fistfuls of Hungarian paprika. The meat-stuffed peppers would cook in a tomato-based sauce until the rice was tender and the meat was well done. The house would be filled with the aroma of paprika and fresh green peppers.

As a youngster, I would eat only the meat filling and dip my grandma's homemade white bread into the paprika-flavored tomato gravy. And on cool evenings, a big bowl of mashed potatoes would be served with the stuffed peppers. I still make at least one pot of those Hungarian-style stuffed peppers each year when I can get the fresh-picked peppers, full of flavor and still holding the maximum degree of vitamins A and C and the most concentrated amounts of antioxidants.

The only hint of Hungarian-style stuffed peppers in today's recipe is the paprika that I seem to sneak into everything I make. Once-Around-the-Farmers' Market Stuffed Peppers are nutrient rich, full of garden-fresh flavor and definitely won't leave you hungry. On my last trip to the market, I gathered onions, summer squash, garlic, red and yellow cherry tomatoes and lots of bell peppers. A little chopping, a little sautéing, quick-cooking pasta and a little seasoning all stuffed into parboiled peppers produces a meal low in fat, high in fiber and loaded with vitamins A and C.

The beauty of this dish is that you can use any grain you like with all your favorite vegetables. I chose couscous, tiny little beads of pasta, for its quick cooking time. Brown rice, quinoa or orzo also would be good choices. I added a can of garbanzo beans for added protein and fiber.

I like to parboil or blanch the peppers before stuffing. I don't allow the peppers to stay in the boiling water very long, though. Just two minutes keeps the peppers crisp-tender - exactly the way I prefer them.

The peppers can be prepared, stuffed and arranged in the baking dish the day before serving. Just cover tightly and store in the refrigerator. Allow for a few more minutes of baking time. Leftovers can easily be reheated in the microwave at 60 percent power.

Just one trip around the farmers' market and you'll be well-prepared to give stuffed peppers center stage on the dinner plate.

Once-Around-the-Farmers' Market Stuffed Peppers

1¼ cups vegetable or chicken broth

2/3 cup uncooked couscous

1 dried bay leaf

6 bell peppers, variety of colors

2 tablespoons olive oil plus a little extra

¾ cup chopped red onion

1 bunch green onions, chopped (about ¼ cup)

1 cup chopped summer squash

3 chubby cloves of garlic, minced

1 Serrano pepper, seeds removed, minced

1 cup quartered cherry or grape tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

½ teaspoon dried basil leaves

½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves

½ teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup toasted pine nuts

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

2 cups of your favorite Italian tomato-based pasta sauce

Feta cheese and chopped kalamata olives, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly brush a 9- x 13-inch baking dish with olive oil.

Pour broth into saucepan and add bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Add the couscous and stir. Cover the pan and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare peppers by cutting each one lengthwise, taking care to leave the base and stem intact on the larger pieces. The peppers should look like little boats. Save the smaller piece of each pepper for another use. Remove the seeds and membrane from each pepper. Boil the trimmed peppers for 2 minutes. Carefully transfer to a bowl of ice water. When peppers are cool enough to handle, place them, cut side down, on a double thickness of paper towels.

Prepare stuffing: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Sauté red onions, green onions and summer squash until tender, but not brown. Add garlic and Serrano pepper. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, beans, dried seasonings and salt and mix well. Remove from heat. Stir in pine nuts and parsley. Using a fork, scrape the couscous into the skillet and toss with the vegetables.

Spoon 1 cup of Italian tomato sauce into the bottom of the pan and spread evenly. Fill each pepper with the vegetable-couscous mixture, mounding the top slightly. Place each pepper, filling side up, in the Italian sauce. Drizzle some olive oil over each pepper. Place in preheated oven, uncovered, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Sprinkle each pepper with feta cheese and chopped kalamata olives. Pass remaining warmed sauce.

Tips from the cook

--I like to spread pine nuts in a single layer in a dry skillet and toast them over medium heat on the stove. I stir them until they begin to turn golden brown, then immediately transfer them onto a plate to cool.

--If you have a little more filling than what will fit into the peppers, save it for later. It's great stuffed into pocket bread or rolled up in a tortilla. Or mix it with fresh greens for a great salad.