A few years ago, I made a lone trip to Ephesus, a port city in Turkey which was once revered as the most important and largest metropolis of the old Mediterranean world. As I gingerly walked its dusty streets, my sandalled feet slipping on stones worn down by time, I noticed the signs etched into the walls directing ancient peoples to Harbour Street, the great theatre, Marble Road, the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, the Temple of Hadrian, Scolastica Baths and countless others. There they all still stood, sun-bleached relics of an empire now lost but never forgotten. Coming across a tiny taverna surrounded by olive and pomegranate trees, I ordered a plate of sumptuous stuffed red peppers and a bowl of cool Turkish yoghurt stirred through with herbs and pul biber. I asked the owner Sami about the recipe and it turned out to be one of several given to him by his great Grandmother who was a daughter of Arak, an oasis in the Syrian desert. This is her recipe which I have no doubt has been handed down through generations.
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
250g of Arborio rice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
5 tbsp pine kernels, toasted (you can also use flaked almonds)
5 tbsp golden sultanas
4 large plum tomatoes, de-seeded and finely diced
2 tsps of amba spice mix (mango powder, ground mustard seeds, dried lime powder, turmeric, cayenne and ground fenugreek seeds) – or you can use a good quality ras el hanout spice mix
400g feta, crumbled
30g fresh parsley, chopped
30g fresh dill, chopped plus extra to serve
30g fresh mint, chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced
8 large red and yellow bell peppers, halved from bottom to top leaving the stalk intact, seeds and membranes removed
Pine kernels, to serve
Pomegranate arils, to serve
How I make them
In a large frying pan, heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil and fry the onion until it is soft and translucent.
Add the rice and stir slowly until it too has become translucent. Add 600ml of boiling water and season generously. Turn the heat down, partially cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes until all the water has been absorbed but the rice remains al dente.
Turn the rice out into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly. Then stir in the pine kernels, raisins, chopped tomato, spices, feta, the herbs, lemon zest and juice and the remaining olive oil. Season to your taste.
Heat an oven to 180C.
Carefully pack the rice mixture into the halved peppers, place into a roasting tray, drizzle with olive oil and cover with foil. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes then remove the foil and bake for a further 20-30 minutes until the top of the rice mixture is golden brown.
Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for 10 minutes before serving with toasted pine kernels, pomegranate arils and a scattering of dill.