Warm, soft and rich, yemista is comfort food at its finest - the kind where the first forkful always summons memories of eating it in the past. Memories of my grandmother's version, eaten in the hot summer evening, with salty hair and sandy feet, at the plastic table on her rooftop balcony. Or my mother's version, cooked on Sunday, eaten on Monday after long days at work, or at school. It's beautiful how the most humble dishes can invoke such vivid recollections of moments past.
Like many of the finest Greek dishes, yemista is rich but wholesome. The vegetables become fleshy and sweet after their long roasting, and the filling of rice, vegetables and herbs transforms into a kind of soft, dense risotto. The recipe given below is vegetarian, but you can make the more traditional version with meat by substituting some of the rice for mince and frying it off before you add the other ingredients. Both versions are delicious.
Hollowing out the vegetables can be a bit of a job - depending on what you use - but it's not a bit difficult, and the result is always worth it. You can add pine nuts to the filling (or whatever else you think would be good) or throw quartered potatoes into the roasting dish around the vegetables to make a more substantial meal. This dish makes an excellent hot dinner on chilly nights, but is perhaps even better eaten (all year round) slightly warm or at room temperature for maximum flavour. Prepare it a day in advance and, magically, the flavour only improves.
Greek Stuffed Vegetables (Yemista)
A note on choosing your vegetables: go for those that are rounded with plenty of room for stuffing. A bottle-neck shaped eggplant will cause much grief when you attempt to hollow it out - look for those that are wider at the top.
4 red capsicum
2 large eggplants
5 large tomatoes
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or finely chopped
5 tbps (or so) of good olive oil
A good knob of butter
1 1/2 cups of aborio rice
1 medium zucchini, chopped into a small dice
1 tsp cumin
3 or 4 tinned tomatoes chopped, with their juice
a big handful of chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup of dried currants
around 800ml vegetable or chicken stock
salt and fresh ground pepper
3 tbsp olive oil, extra
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup grated mizithra (salted dried ricotta) or parmesan
Using a sharp little knife (carefully!), cut the tops of the capsicums to make what looks like little lids or hats and scoop out any seeds. Cut the seeded heart from the lid so that that each capsicum is entirely empty. Keep the right lids with the right bottoms! Cut lids from the tomatoes and gently scoop out the flesh and seeds, chop up any larger bits and reserve in a bowl. Cut tops from eggplant and scoop out flesh and reserve in a colander. Sprinkle with salt to draw out any bitterness.
For filling, pop oil and butter into a large frying pan. Cook onion, stirring, over low heat until translucent then add garlic. Stir for a minute or so, then add rice and stir to coat well. Stir in the cumin and the currants, add some freshly ground pepper. Rinse eggplant flesh of excess salt, chop finely and add to rice along with zucchini. Fry this mixture, stirring every now and then, until vegetables soften and begin to look sticky. Pour in the reserved tomato flesh and juice, add the tinned tomatoes and throw in the parsley. Stir in around 500ml of the stock and cook for 10 - 15 minutes. Stir from time to time and add a ladle of stock if it looks like it's drying out. The rice should be about half-cooked. Taste for salt (this will depend on your stock). Take off the heat and let cool slightly. Preheat oven to 180˚C.
Fill each hollowed-out vegetable nearly to the top with rice mixture, add its little hat and arrange in a large roasting dish. Add lemon juice to remaining stock and pour around vegetables to keep moist during cooking. Pour extra olive oil over vegetables. Sprinkle with cheese. Cover with foil and pop in hot oven for 1¼ - 1½ hours, removing foil after first 45 minutes to get a nice colour on the vegetables. If they seem dry, add a little water. They're done when they're soft all over and golden on top.