In many nations' kitchens, tomatoes have right stuff

August 31, 1994|By Faye Levy | Faye Levy,Los Angeles Times

Parisians love stuffed tomatoes. Colorful ready-to-bake tomatoes, mounded high with meat stuffing, catch your eye at the charcuteries. All you have to do is take them home and pop them in the oven.

Another option for the busy cook is to go to a nearby butcher shop and buy "farce a tomates," or stuffing for tomatoes, which is basically seasoned ground meat with herbs.

In many countries, the best-loved stuffings for tomatoes are based on rice or on mixtures of rice and meat. A tasty Lebanese filling combines rice with ground lamb, pine nuts, cilantro and allspice. For a popular Romanian stuffing, rice is enhanced with sauteed onions, parsley and chives or with raisins, fennel and thyme. A northern Italian stuffing also calls for rice mixed with sauteed onions enriched with butter and Parmesan cheese.

For a lively new way to serve your favorite stuffing, bake it in tomatoes. Their tart-sweet flavor provides a pleasing complement for rich meat stuffings and for leaner, grain- and bread-based stuffings. At cooking school in France, we prepared lamb roast with a rice, almond and raisin stuffing, then baked the extra stuffing in tomatoes and served them around the roast.

Round, medium tomatoes are ideal for stuffing; you can also use large round ones or plum tomatoes.

Tomatoes bake quickly. To ensure that the stuffing is done by the time the tomatoes are tender, it is best to precook the meat completely and to cook the rice partially, as in the following recipes.

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A luscious filling in the Eastern Mediterranean tradition of lamb and rice accented with pine nuts, garlic, cilantro and allspice turns these tomatoes into a festive entree.

Lebanese Stuffed Tomatoes

Makes 6 or 7 servings

1/2 cup long-grain rice

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 pound lean ground lamb, beef or chicken

2 tablespoons pine nuts or slivered almonds

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

3/4 teaspoon salt, plus extra for sprinkling

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

6 to 7 medium to large, ripe but firm tomatoes (2 1/4 to 2 1/2 pounds)

Boil rice, uncovered, in saucepan with 3 cups boiling salted water 10 minutes. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to bowl.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in skillet. Add onions and saute over medium-low heat until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add lamb and pine nuts and saute, stirring to crumble meat, until meat changes color, about 5 minutes. Add to rice along with garlic, cilantro, 3/4 teaspoon salt, pepper and allspice. Mix well.

Cut off 1 slice from bottom (smooth) end of each tomato, cutting about 1/4 of tomato. Reserve slice as a "hat." Remove pulp and seeds from tomato with spoon (pulp can be added to soups). Lightly sprinkle interior of tomatoes and cut side of hats with salt.

Place tomatoes in oiled baking dish. Fill with rice stuffing, mounding slightly, and cover with hats. Sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon oil. Bake, uncovered, at 300 degrees until tomatoes are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve hot.

Per serving: 238 calories; 9g protein; 13g fat; 854 mg sodium; 19g carbohydrates.

Easy Stuffed Tomatoes, Roman Style

Makes 8 side-dish or 4 main-course servings

2/3 cup long-grain white rice

salt, freshly ground black pepper

8 medium tomatoes, ripe but firm (2 1/2 pounds)

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon tomato paste diluted in 1/2 cup water

mint sprigs for garnish, optional

In 3 cups boiling salted water, boil rice, uncovered, in saucepan for 10 minutes. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to bowl.

Cut off 1 slice from bottom (smooth) end of each tomato, cutting about 1/4 of tomato. Reserve slice as "hat." Remove pulp and seeds from tomato with spoon. Finely chop removed pulp to make 1/4 cup and reserve. Lightly sprinkle interior of tomatoes and cut side of hats with salt.

Mix garlic with mint and add to rice along with 2 1/2 tablespoons oil, reserved 1/4 cup chopped tomato pulp, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Place tomatoes in oiled baking dish. Fill with rice stuffing, mounding slightly, and cover with hats. Pour diluted tomato paste around tomatoes. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Cover and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Uncover, adding few tablespoons water to pan if it becomes dry, and bake until tomatoes are tender, 10 to 20 minutes longer. Serve hot or cold, garnished with mint sprigs.

Per stuffed tomato: 135 calories; 2g protein; 7g fat; 5mg sodium; 17g carbohydrates.

Turkish Yogurt-Garlic Sauce

Makes 1 cup or about 4 servings

A cool, refreshing accompaniment for stuffed tomatoes.

1 cup nonfat or low-fat yogurt

2 small garlic cloves, finely minced

1/2 teaspoon dried mint leaves, crumbled

salt, cayenne pepper

Mix yogurt with garlic and mint. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Per serving: 38 calories; 3g protein; 1g fat; 20 mg sodium; 4g carbohydrates.

Faye Levy is the author of "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" (Warner Books), which won a James Beard Cookbook Award.

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