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Crunchy stuffed sweet pepper ‘boats’ are a family-friendly meal

(Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post )
Stuffed Sweet Pepper ‘Boats’
Total time:40 mins
Total time:40 mins

I’ve been a parent for more than five years now, and I still can’t tell you the magic formula for coming up with meals that will hit 100 percent of the time. I’ve made dishes that I was sure my son would love and he hasn’t. Other times, I’ve been completely surprised by what has been a hit with him (frozen cauliflower, really?). If there’s no accounting for taste, there’s really no accounting for kids’ tastes.

Sheet pan pancakes bring the entire family to the table

But I like to think I’ve learned at least a few things. One of them is that the most successful family recipes tend to be fun and flexible. That definitely applies to these Stuffed Sweet Pepper ‘Boats,’ from cookbook author Jenny Mollen’s “Dictator Lunches.” (Yes, I nodded in recognition at the cheeky title!)

I’m with Mollen when she says that even as an adult, it can be hard to come around to stuffed peppers. The sides go soft, and the flavor can edge into bitter. They can be tricky to eat, too. When I saw her recipe that uses raw mini sweet peppers, it made total sense. The fresh vegetables maintain their sweet, bright flavor, and they provide a cool, crisp contrast to the warm, spicy filling made with ground turkey. Plus, they’re eye-catching in color and shape, which is why I decided to brand these as ‘boats’ for the kiddos (she calls them Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Peppers). I’m surely not the only parent who’s been taken aback at a party to see their children attack a platter of crudites. Same idea here.

As to flexibility, this recipe has it. Turkey is actually my favorite ground meat, although beef, pork or even lamb would be fine. For meatless options, I’ve tested and enjoyed both plant-based ground meat, which I may have even slightly preferred to the turkey, and cauliflower rice. If you have family members with divergent needs, you can make full batches of one or two of the fillings — they really do come together in a flash — or start one batch’s worth of the onion and spice base in one skillet and then divide it up to finish cooking with separate proteins. Similarly, feel free to tweak the seasoning to reduce the heat or suit whatever spice jars you have in your pantry. (See more substitution tips below.)

This becomes an interactive meal when you let everyone fill their own peppers and top them however they like. It wasn’t included in Mollen’s original recipe, but I like setting out a taco-bar-inspired array of shredded cheese, scallions, salsa and sour cream.

Keep your family-favorite dinner ideas coming! It’s been great to hear about them, and I hope to feature some in future columns.

Stuffed Sweet Pepper ‘Boats’

  • Don’t like ground turkey? >> Use another ground meat of your choice.
  • To make this dish vegan >> substitute the turkey with plant-based ground meat or cauliflower rice (see VARIATIONS, below).
  • Need to cut back on the spice? >> Reduce or eliminate the chili powder, replacing it with more sweet paprika or some smoked paprika, if desired.
  • If you don’t have broth in the house >> use water and a little extra tomato paste.
  • Not a fan of peppers? >> Tuck the filling into buns, tortillas or lettuce leaves.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.

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  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion (7 ounces), chopped
  • 1 pound ground turkey, preferably 93 percent lean (may substitute ground beef; plant-based ground meat, such as Impossible Beef; or cauliflower rice; see VARIATIONS)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons no-salt-added chicken or vegetable broth
  • 24 mini sweet peppers (24 to 32 ounces, depending on size), sliced in half lengthwise and seeded
  • Shredded cheese, such as cheddar, Monterey Jack or pepper Jack, for serving (optional)
  • Sliced scallions, for serving (optional)
  • Salsa, for serving (optional)
  • Sour cream, for serving (optional)

Step 1

In a large, cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the turkey, salt, pepper, paprika, chili powder, oregano and cumin, stirring until combined. Cook, stirring to break up the meat until it is no longer pink, about 5 minutes.

Step 2

Stir in the tomato paste until incorporated. Add the broth and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer, adjusting as needed. Cook until the broth has reduced and the mixture has thickened slightly and is not soupy, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste, adding more salt as needed. Remove from the heat.

Step 3

Transfer the meat to a serving bowl and the halved peppers to a platter. Serve family-style, scooping about 1 tablespoon of the turkey mixture onto each halved pepper.

VARIATIONS: For a meatless option, substitute 12 ounces of plant-based ground meat, such as Impossible Beef. (It does not lose as much volume as conventional meat, so you can start with less.) Or try about 3 cups of cauliflower rice; start with a 1 ½- to 2-pound head of cauliflower, and break down the florets in batches in a food processor until finely ground, with a texture similar to rice or couscous, depending on your preference. Alternatively, you can grate the cauliflower on the large holes of a box grater. (If you are buying cauliflower rice, you’ll need about 10 ounces.) The cook time on both options will be about the same as for the turkey.

Nutrition Information

Per serving (1/2 cup filling and 8 pepper halves)

Calories: 214; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 56 mg; Sodium: 284 mg; Carbohydrates: 12 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugar: 7 g; Protein: 17 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

Adapted from “Dictator Lunches” by Jenny Mollen (Harvest, 2022).

Tested by Becky Krystal; email questions to

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