RING IN THE BELLS!
In her recipe, Dani Aquino, Melissa’s in-house photographer, slices the stemmed tops off four plump bell peppers, hollows out the large interior cavity, which she then fills with a very tasty stuffing that could be a standalone side dish in itself. Instead, she pairs this flavorful mixture with four distinct tastes that each color stage of a ripening pepper offers. Green bells have a slightly sharp tang, while the riper orange and yellow each increase in sweetness incrementally before maturing into a fully ripe, ruby red bell pepper that hits its “max” in both sugar content and nutrients. Four slightly different flavor profiles for the price of one using the same delicious stuffing!
“As someone who follows a vegetarian or “plant-based” diet with a pretty active schedule, I am always on the lookout for a quick and healthy meal that will satisfy,” Dani explained. “Bell peppers offer great nutritional value, so that’s where I started with this recipe. My first version of the stuffing was basically rice, broth, garlic and onion. It was good but a bit too simple. The rest of the ingredients evolved over time. Adding in the beans and corn kind of guided the other flavor supports. Our Hatch Chile powder really did the trick! I usually make and then freeze a batch, which comes in handy, especially when I get home late after a day’s shoot in the field. When in season, I have also used the striped Aloha pepper from Holland in this recipe.”
Like tomatoes, bell peppers are botanically classified as a fruit though they are considered and used as a vegetable in the kitchen. It is one of the few pepper varieties that does not produce capsaicin, the compound that causes spicy heat in chile peppers. They can be enjoyed raw, adding a fresh taste and a crunchy texture, sliced up in salads or as an appetizer with a complimenting dip. Bells can also be baked, grilled or sautéed as a flavorful ingredient in savory and stir-fried dishes.
Red, orange and yellow bell peppers may taste a bit different, but they all have very similar health benefits to one another. Even though they are different colors, they all have similar amounts of vitamin A and vitamin C. Red bell peppers also contain lycopene, an antioxidant that has been shown effective in fighting cancer-causing free radicals in the body. However, all three colors have substantially more nutritional value than green bell peppers because they are picked before the ripening process is complete, so all the nutrients and natural sugars have not had a chance to develop yet. Still, the fresh-tart taste of the immature green bell lends its own distinct accent to many dishes.
Many people think bell peppers with two or three lobes aren’t as good – an urban myth! If the bell has two or three lobes, it is just as healthy and nutritious as a four-lobed pepper. However, it is important to think about how these peppers are going to be used when choosing them at the grocery store. If being cut up for a salad, the shape or number of lobes is unimportant. For Dani’s stuffed pepper recipe, a four-lobe pepper is the most practical for its large, symmetrical cavity and well-balanced shape- perfect for staying upright during the bake.
As Dani already noted, for those on the go with little time to prepare a big meal, yet trying also to eat healthily, this is a great dish! Double or triple the measurements, and prepare the peppers right up to but not including the cheese topping. Arrange the peppers upright in a single layer on a baking dish. Double-wrap the dish with plastic wrap. Cover it with another layer of aluminum foil; the peppers will keep well for up to a year. Then it’s just a matter of thawing a pepper as needed and topping it with cheese for the reheat. Easy-peasy—a quick and healthy one-dish meal!
The photographic needs of a fresh produce company such as Melissa’s that markets on several different kinds of media platforms keep Dani busy! Every day new products, new seasons and new harvests from around the globe provide Dani with a never-ending “TO DO” list of visual aid requests from the company’s various marketing teams and account managers.
“Whether we need product images for our websites, photography for our cookbooks, creative content for social media, imagery for packaging, styled photos for ads or retail signage, special event coverage or field images -- pretty much anything that needs digital photography – I’m on it! There’s always something different to shoot, so the job never gets repetitive or boring. It keeps me upbeat, creative and looking forward to the next photoshoot! Fresh produce is such a fascinating business; I have learned so much about fruits and vegetables from all over the globe that I never even knew existed. I just love coming to work each day!”
Outside of work, Dani relaxes by challenging herself with the sport (and art) of rock climbing -- both at indoor gyms as well as outdoors on real rock formations and boulders. It’s a hobby she picked up about 3 years ago and has become hooked on it ever since.
“Compared to other sports, I feel as though climbing is the only intense physical activity where one is able to reach a feeling of Zen. It requires a singular mental and physical focus that demands that I think of nothing else except my next hand or foot placement. It pushes me to fully clear my mind and to be present with the task at hand -- which is not falling! It’s a creative sport that challenges one to solve a puzzle, so to speak, by using the whole body, constantly shifting weight until one finds the next “piece” of that puzzle. I highly recommend it to anyone who has been thinking about trying climbing out.”
In doing research for this feature, it was noted that some people are allergic to bell peppers. Not to worry, the measurements in Dani’s recipe could actually fill five or six bells depending on the pepper size. There was enough leftover stuffing to try it as a side dish that included just adding in Dani’s garnishes to the mix after the reheat. So, correction, her recipe has FIVE flavor profiles for the price of one. Enjoy!
Stuffed Bell Peppers Squared
4 Bell Peppers, green-yellow-orange-green (option: Aloha Peppers)
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
½ Perfect Sweet Onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 can diced tomatoes, 14 oz.
1 can black beans, 15 oz., drained & rinsed
1 cup fresh corn (option: canned)
1 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons Hatch chile powder, red or green to taste
½ teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 cup Jasmine rice
1-2/3 cups vegetable broth
1 cup shredded Colby Jack cheese
Garnish: cilantro, lime juice, sour cream
Slice the stemmed tops off each bell pepper. Clean out the seeds, then place standing up on the baking tray sprayed with cooking oil. Dust the peppers with cooking spray, bake at 400°F for 8 minutes. Remove from oven and aside in the baking tray until ready to stuff.
While the peppers are baking, in a large pan sauté onion and garlic in olive oil on medium flame until fragrant. Then pour in the tomatoes, corn and black beans – season with ground cumin, chile powder and salt. Simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring throughout.
Stir in the jasmine rice and vegetable broth, reduce the heat to low, cover and let it simmer until rice is cooked. After rice is cooked, remove from the heat and spoon the mixture into the roasted peppers.
Sprinkle shredded cheese on top of each pepper, place back into the oven and cook for another 6-8 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with chopped cilantro, a dollop of sour cream and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.