The Washington Post

Cooking Off the Cuff: The right stuff(ing)

Shrimp paste: When in need of a light binder, turn to the crustacean. (Edward Schneider for The Washington Post)

Hot or tepid, stuffed peppers are a great meal for a couple of people or for a crowd. Often bell peppers are filled with mixtures containing meat, aromatic vegetables and something like rice or breadcrumbs or, if they’re teeny-weeny peppers, with something like salt cod or cheese.

But it’s late summer. There’s been corn in the farmers market long enough that I’m looking for new ways to use it, not that Jackie or I will ever tire of plain corn, creamed corn or corn pancakes. Besides, peppers are a happy partner. Can you imagine corn relish or corn chowder without them?

So how about a corn stuffing? It’d be seasonal and lighter — and baking the stuffed peppers with great tomatoes would create a flavorful sauce and take advantage of another summer asset. (We’ve been eating everything with tomatoes recently because, like peaches and other fruit, they’ve been so good this season.)

I couldn’t think what to bind the stuffing with, though. Lots of breadcrumbs and eggs seemed to defeat the purpose and threatened to yield a monotonous, starchy mixture. With a little care, it could have been done, but a better approach stared me in the face when I opened the freezer: shrimp. Corn, peppers, shrimp, tomatoes, herbs — now you’re talking. But how would shrimp provide a binder? You’ll see.

I began by making a garbage stock: I peeled about 7 ounces of shrimp (the amount I had), reserving the shells; blanched and peeled two medium tomatoes, reserving the skins; and cut the kernels off two good-sized ears of corn, scraping all the starchy juice from the cobs and reserving this and the denuded cobs. I toasted the shrimp shells in a small, lightly oiled saucepan, deglazed with white wine (optional) and added the tomato skins, the corn cobs (cut into 1-inch lengths) and some fresh herbs. I used parsley and tarragon, but I love sage with corn and would have substituted that had I been out of tarragon. Water to cover, natch, and a little salt.

Half an hour later, I had a light-but-aromatic stock, which I reduced to 3/4 cup.

To make the binder for the stuffing, I put 2/3 of the peeled shrimp (raw) into a food processor along with the starchy corncob scrapings. When this was pureed (which took several scrapings-down, as it was a small amount in a full-sized machine), I added one egg white, salt and pepper and a tablespoon of cornstarch and processed until smooth. (This is akin to the mousselike mixture for Asian shrimp balls.) I combined this with the corn kernels, about 2/3 cup of previously cooked onions (soft but not browned, and stored in the fridge), the remaining shrimp cut into 1/2-inch pieces, parsley, tarragon, the grated zest of half a lemon and a handful of 1/4-inch cubes of bread (crisped thoroughly in olive oil and cooled) and plenty of salt and pepper.

The peppers were enormous, nearly the size of watermelons. (Okay, perhaps I exaggerate.) Two halves would easily hold all the stuffing and would be plenty for the both of us. I mounded in the stuffing, pressed more of the croutons into the surface and set the pepper halves into a small baking dish, drizzled with olive oil and surrounded by the roughly chopped tomatoes, a little more oil and about 1/2 cup of stock. This went into a preheated 375-degree oven for the better part of an hour, until the peppers were cooked but not limp, the stuffing hot and its top browned and crisp. Occasionally, I checked to make sure the tomatoes weren’t drying out (they weren’t) and, for the first half hour, basted the peppers a couple of times. In a different oven (say, a convection), they might have been done in as little as 40 minutes, so start checking around then.

What worked especially well was that each of the main ingredients had its say: You could taste corn, shrimp and, heaven knows, tomatoes and peppers. And combined, the flavors were entirely harmonious. You could certainly reformulate a similar basket of ingredients into a delicious stir-fry or soup. Or even, with a touch more acidity, a salad. A pleasure to eat.


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