Several months ago, a good friend of mine was giving birth, so a small group of her friends decided that it would be a good idea to make her and her family fresh meals for the week or so after she had her baby. For those of you who have had kids (or if you can imagine what it’s like), standing in the kitchen and ‘laboring over a meal’ after having labored to deliver a baby is kinda … well, impossible! We used Take Them a Meal to figure out among ourselves who will bring what and on which day, and we just dropped off the food on the day we volunteered. Easy breezy, right?
A Balanced Vegan Meal
Well, since my dear friend is a health-conscious vegan, picking a meal that she would enjoy was a welcome new challenge. After clicking around on inspiring food sites, I decided that I would cook something that would use veggies and properly prepared beans (for some protein), along with a big colorful salad, and homemade zucchini-tahini (recipe coming soon!) with sprouted bread. How I’d work the veggies and the beans together remained a mystery for a few days until I remembered a time I made calabacitas (zucchini-squash) stuffed with quinoa and ground beef. Quinoa! That’s what I’d use. And stuffed veggies … such a novel idea was sure to appeal to my friend, who had spent some time in Morocco and has an appreciation for traditional foods. But which veggies? Since yellow squash and bell peppers were in season at the time, I decided to give these two a go!
Traditional Stuffed Vegetables
I was pretty excited when I put together the recipe for this … much of it was experimentation, because I had never made a vegan version of stuffed bell peppers before. In Middle Eastern food tradition, we typically stuff vegetables like grape (vine) leaves, white eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, native squashes, etc., with a mixture of white rice and ground meat (usually beef, but occasionally lamb). These can be cooked either in a clear broth or in some red sauce. When Egyptian Orthodox Christians fast from animal products during certain seasons, we adapt the traditional stuffed veggies to a vegan diet. So instead of the meat and rice combo, only rice is used, but it’s spiced just right. We often use a savory red sauce (but made with vegetable broth instead of beef or chicken broth), and fresh mint features as the prominent spice.
For my friend, I chose to use quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) instead of the nutritionally-inferior white rice. After eating quinoa at a restaurant one time, I was a convert. Slightly nutty in its flavor and fluffy in its texture, quinoa is perfectly adaptable to many recipes, and its nutritional profile is quite impressive to boot! It’s quite protein-rich for a seed, and contains a good amount of manganese, tryptophan and magnesium. Since it’s a seed (and not a grain, as once assumed by many), it is a perfect gluten-free substitute in meals that call for couscous, bulgur (burghul), or other kinds of wheat. Seeds like quinoa are best digested when soakedin some warm water with a tablespoon of something acidic (like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice) overnight. This helps neutralize some of the anti-nutrients that can otherwise interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients.
It’s important to note that since quinoa became a ‘health fad’ in recent years, the cost of producing it has risen dramatically. The native Bolivians who have traditionally cultivated quinoa for consumption for centuries are no longer able to afford it, so they are only cultivating it to export it, and they turn to less nutritious grains and other processed foods to substitute their staple. In an effort to remedy this, some farms in North America are producing quinoa locally, like this one, but they’re hard to come by.
The Other Components
Besides the quinoa, I wanted to use some more plant-based protein for stuffing, so I opted for properly soaked black beans. For veggies, I used sauteed onions and a little bit of garlic, shitake mushrooms, tomatoes, shaved carrots and fresh mint. The mint gives the whole recipe a nice fresh flavor, and it reminded me of the traditional way to make vegetarian stuffed bell peppers. I should have made a larger quantity, but I did manage to taste a little bit before I stuffed the peppers and squash and wrapped it up nicely in a dish for my friend — it was oh-so-tasty and ideal for anyone on a vegan diet, or who wants to make an occasional vegan meal.
Bell Peppers and Squash Stuffed with Quinoa, Beans and Vegetables (Vegan and Gluten-Free)
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Keywords: bake boil saute entree side gluten-free nut-free soy-free sugar-free vegan vegetarian bell pepper yellow squash quinoa fresh mint spring summer
Ingredients (Serves 6)
- 3 large organic green bell peppers (or 4 medium ones), with tops sliced off and seeds and ribs removed (do not discard tops – they’re used to ‘close’ the peppers while baking to maintain moisture)
- 4 medium organic yellow squash, tops removed and cored with a vegetable corer
- 1 cup organic quinoa, rinsed and soaked overnight in water with a tablespoon of acidic liquid like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
- 2 cups filtered water or homemade vegetable broth for cooking the quinoa
- 1/2 cup dried black beans, rinsed and soaked overnight in water with a tablespoon of acidic liquid like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil for sauteing the onions
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 3 cups organic shitake mushrooms (I chose shitake, but you can certainly use another common variety)
- 3 medium firm organic tomatoes, diced
- 1 1/2 cups grated organic carrots
- 1/2 cup of fresh organic mint leaves, chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon organic ground cumin
- juice of half a lemon, to taste
- unrefined mineral salt (I use Himalayan), to taste
- dash of freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
(1) Soak quinoa and black beans: In two separate glass containers, add the quinoa and black beans, rinse both thoroughly under running water, and then add enough water to cover. Add 1-2 tablespoons of an acidic liquid to the water, such as fresh lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or liquid whey (leftover from making yogurt), and leave to soak overnight.
(2) Cook beans: Drain and rinse beans from soaking water. Add beans to a stainless steel pot and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil, and then discard that water, draining the beans. In a separate pot or teapot, boil enough water to cover the beans, and pour over beans. You may wish to add a dash of asafoetida or a slice of fresh ginger in there to aid in the cooking process and increase the digestibility of the beans.
(3) Cook quinoa: In a stainless steel pot, add one tablespoon of coconut oil and saute 3-4 cloves of minced garlic and a tablespoon of ground cumin on medium heat until fragrant. Then, add the presoaked and well-rinsed quinoa and saute for a minute or two. Add 2 cups of filtered water or homemade vegetable broth, bring to a boil, cover, and lower heat. After 20 minutes, fluff with a fork to see if cooked. When you see that the water has been absorbed and the seeds have all sprouted and they’ve become translucent, they’re probably cooked. You can take a bite to double check. You don’t want them mushy, but definitely cooked all the way through.
(4) Prepare vegetables: Cut the tops off the bell peppers, take out seeds and ribs and discard. Don’t throw away the tops, though; they’ll be useful in keeping things moist when you bake the stuffed peppers. Cut the top off the yellow squash, and using a vegetable corer, take out enough of the pulp without peircing the skin. Finely chop the other veggies that you’ll add to the mixture, including the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots (it’s best to grate those), and the mint.
(5) Saute the veggie mixture: In a saucepan over medium heat, melt a tablespoon of coconut oil and saute the onions until they’re fragrant and a translucent golden color. Add carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes and stir for a few minutes. When you’ve turned off the heat, add the chopped mint and mix well. Reserve some of the liquid from this to drizzle over finished product.
(6) Blanch the peppers and squash: Bring a pot full of water to a boil, turn off the heat, and then carefully slip in the squash and the peppers (with tops on top). Cover pot, and leave them for 5-7 minutes, and then check to see if they’ve softened a little. You don’t want them to get really soft, just enough to lose their crunch.
(7) Mix and stuff: The last step is the easiest — just mix the sauteed veggies with the beans and spiced quinoa. Add some real salt and pepper and few drops of fresh lemon. Taste to adjust spicing, and then stuff the peppers and squash. You don’t want to over-stuff them; leave half an inch unstuffed to prevent any messes.
(8) Bake: Once stuffed, arrange in a baking dish, add tops to the bell peppers, cover dish with foil, and bake on 325 F for about 20 minutes, until the peppers and squash have absorbed some of the stuffing’s flavors, and vice versa. Serve warm and drizzled with some of the retained sauce from the sauteed veggies. Enjoy!