Happy Halloween memories of growing up in Charlotte …
Walking home from the school bus stop, crunching through the dried leaves. The bluer-than-blue skies overhead, but darkening fast. The first owls awakening, sitting in trees and blinking at me sleepily.
My beautiful Southern belle mom, waiting for me at home. Eager to hear all about my school day and to serve me a hot meal.
Carving up pumpkins.
Carving up unsuspecting door-to-door-salesmen. Carving up bell peppers.
Yes, you read that right. Decades before Pinterest was invented, moms were carving jack-o-lantern faces in bell peppers and stuffing them with ground beef and tomatoes on Halloween. My mom used ground
salesmen beef and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup. My sister and I enjoyed cutting the silly faces in the peppers and then eating our creations later.
Now that I no longer eat … beef, I wanted to create a vegan version. I could have just swapped the ground meat for some veggie crumbles. (Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup is already vegan!). But, truth be told, even as a child I didn’t think that was the most enticing recipe – I just enjoyed the presentation!
So I decided to create another “fusion” dish, cooking the “ground beef” using Punjabi seasonings and methods. It wound up being very similar to kheema (an Indian dish made with ground lamb), except I used way, way more tomato than is traditional! However, I think you need all that tomato with bell peppers!
You can stuff bell peppers with almost anything, as long as it has tomatoes! (“Ground beef” is just traditional.) If you prefer to avoid anything resembling meat, there are many options. Try stuffing the peppers with chili. You could also stuff them with Couscous with Olives and Tomatoes. Or try Moe’s Southwest Quinoa – just replace the halved cherry tomatoes with diced tomatoes and a spoonful or two of crushed tomatoes. If you REALLY don’t feel like cooking, use a boxed Spanish rice mix.
Ingredients for Kheema Stuffed Halloween Peppers
1- 2 Tablespoons Vegetable or Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Cumin Seeds
1 Large Yellow Onion, chopped
3 Green Thai Chilies, finely minced, or 1-2 Serrano Peppers (or to taste)
1 Tablespoon Minced Fresh Ginger or Ginger Paste
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic (about 4 large cloves)
1/2 Teaspoon Turmeric
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1-2 Teaspoons Garam Masala
1 Package Veggie Crumbles (about 10 oz.) – Gluten free people, look for a gluten-free brand like Gardein
2 Roma Tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 Cups Crushed Tomatoes
1 Cup Frozen Green Peas
5-10 Bell Peppers (depending on size)
Directions for Kheema Stuffed Halloween Peppers
First, do a little prep work before you begin cooking. Chop the onions and peppers first, of course, because you’ll be using them first. But also go ahead and measure out the garlic and ginger in one bowl; the turmeric, cumin, and coriander in another bowl; and the salt and garam masala in a third. If you want, you can chop the tomatoes now, too, but there will also be plenty of time to do that while the onions are cooking.
Also, go ahead and defrost the veggie crumbles in the microwave. You are not trying to cook the crumbles; you are just trying to melt the ice, which can cause the hot oil to splatter. Thawing the crumbles will also help the crumbles mix better with the spices. If you don’t have a microwave, just thaw them in the skillet and set aside. And go ahead and measure out a cup of frozen peas so they won’t be icy when it’s time to add them.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and wait for them to “pop.”
Add the onions and chilies. Stir to coat in oil, then let them cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or so. (You can chop your tomatoes now, if you haven’t already.)
Add the garlic and ginger, stir, and and let cook another 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the turmeric, coriander, and ground cumin. Stir so that the spices are mixed well with the onions and let cook about 2 minutes.
Add chopped tomatoes and stir. Add veggie crumbles and peas and stir. Add the crushed tomatoes. Stir. add the salt and garam masala. Cook covered over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it seems to be getting too dry, add another spoonful of crushed tomatoes.
Taste. Add more salt and garam masala, if needed.
Consider preparing this in advance – it’s one of those recipes where the flavors blossom and blend after being in the refrigerator overnight. The next evening, you’ll have a clean kitchen and you and your kids can have fun carving Jack-O-Lantern peppers together – provided, of course, they are old enough to handle a small knife. Very small children can sketch out a face on a piece of paper for you to copy onto “their” pepper.
Now for the Jack-O-Lantern Peppers!
Use a small, sharp knife – like a paring knife – to carve a face into the side of a pepper.
Then, slice the tops off their little skulls and remove the seeds.
Next, perform the brain transplant. Fill the peppers, but be careful not to pack them too full, or the filling will run out the eyes, nose, and mouth as you bake. Also, if you have carved any delicate features – like teeth – overfilling the peppers could cause them to break.
Put the tops back on the peppers and … gently … place them in a baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray or lightly rubbed with oil.
I like to use green peas as eyes. You can do this with any kind of filling, even if your filling doesn’t have green peas.
Bake them in an oven preheated at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.
Some tips on choosing peppers …
Color doesn’t matter. It’s natural to want to choose orange bell peppers to mimic pumpkins.
But red bell peppers can look like devils, and green bell peppers – especially if you let them bake a few minutes longer in the oven and let them get a little shriveled – can look like little reptile faces or spaces aliens. So if you are a frugal vegan, feel free to choose whatever color peppers are cheaper or a mix of colors.
Size does matter. However, in this case, smaller is better. If possible, pick small-to-medium bell peppers – you get a better ratio of filling-to-pepper.
Make sure the peppers can stand up on their own. This is very important. Most peppers can, but a few have lopsided bottoms. Don’t be afraid to test the ability of peppers to stand upright in the store. Yes, you’ll get a few strange looks – but you should be used to that, as a vegan.
Wait … what is that? The doorbell? Someone selling something, or perhaps, a volunteer crusader encouraging us to vote.
And suddenly I am transported back through time …
My beautiful Southern Belle mom, in her shift dress and June Cleaver pearls and Cherries in the Snow lipstick. Walking to the doorway, a subtle but sultry sway to her hips. Talking to the stranger on our doorstep in a voice as sweet and intoxicating as a mint julep.
Me, peering around the corner.
Strange, how these strangers always seemed to show up Halloween night.
“And you’re selling en-cy-clo-peee-dee-yahs? Isn’t that lovely? Both my girls have a real hunger for … learning. Tell me, would you like to stay and help us stuff some peppers? We’d love to have you for dinner tonight.”