The Mediterranean diet has become a hot topic lately, with physicians, researchers and nutritionists touting its many health benefits. Based on the traditional eating habits of Spain, Greece and Southern Italy, the diet emphasizes olive oil, legumes, unrefined grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt), moderate wine consumption and small amounts of meat.
For southern Italians, sweet red bell peppers are one of the mainstays of the Mediterranean diet, whether roasted, fried or stuffed and baked. Called peperoni in Italian (not to be confused with the Italian American dried spicy sausage, they are actually fruits, not vegetables. Sweet red bell peppers are packed with health-promoting nutrients, like vitamins A, C, B6 and K, beta-carotene, lycopene, and minerals like manganese. They’re also a great source of fiber. And they are delicious, however prepared.
Southern Italians are partial to stuffed and baked peppers, and there are many ways to stuff a pepper, from simple, with just breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese, to richer and more complex versions, with meat or seafood. The following recipe is typical of Naples, the capital of Southern Italy. It combines breadcrumbs with olives, currants, capers, anchovies and herbs. (If you want an entirely vegetarian version, omit the anchovies.) The stuffed peppers are topped with extra virgin olive oil and tomato sauce and baked in a moderately hot oven.
Peperoni ripieni alla napoletana (Neapolitan-style Stuffed Peppers)
Four large sweet red bell peppers
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup plain breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons currants or black raisins, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes and rinsed
12 black olives, preferably gaeta or other black Italian olives, pitted and cut into pieces
6 anchovy filets, preferably Sicilian, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley (not curly leaf)
1 tablespoon chopped basil
2 tablespoons capers, either packed in salt or in brine, rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the tomato sauce:
14 ounces chopped Italian plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 whole clove garlic
1 tablespoon chopped basil
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
Rinse peppers under cold water and dry. Cut around the stems, removing them and the seeds inside. Discard the stem caps.
Mix the ½ cup olive oil, the breadcrumbs, the currants or raisins, the chopped anchovies, parsley, basil, capers, salt and pepper. If the stuffing seems a bit dry, add a little more olive oil.
Stuff the peppers and place them upright in a large baking dish lightly coated with olive oil. Pour a little olive oil over each pepper.
Prepare the tomato sauce. Sauté one whole clove of garlic in two tablespoons olive oil until lightly browned, then discard. Add the chopped tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over moderate heat until the sauce thickens, about 10-12 minutes.
Top each pepper with an equal amount of the sauce. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes. Then remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes. Add some water to the baking dish if the peppers seem dry.
Peperoni ripieni alla napoletana are not only delicious but also versatile – they can be eaten hot or cold, as an antipasto, side dish or main course.