Thick, gooey and saucy. Rich tomato sweetness. Arborio rice stuffing that flavour soaks like a sponge. This vegetarian tomato “gemista” has a lot going for it. Even my meat-loving Cypriot boyfriend enjoyed it. In Cyprus, I have observed that every family has their own recipe for “gemista”, though the principle is always the same. “Gemista” literally translates to “stuffed things”. This is a traditional vegetarian “gemista” recipe (vegetarian “gemista” is technically called “gemista orfana” which means orphan “gemista”) with a little, added kick. I used arborio rice instead of long-grain rice, so the rice really soaked up the flavour of the sauce. Threw in pine nuts. A little chilli. And used lots of tomato and garlic. It’s easy to make, no matter which city you live in or what type of kitchen you have. Yesterday we went to my mom’s village in Pafos. I took the ingredients to make “gemista”. The kitchen is literally just an outside gas-powered hob and oven, very old-fashioned. I sat at an outdoor, wobbly table, prepared all the ingredients, threw it in the oven, waited 1.5 hours, and it came out great. “Gemista” can also be made with a variety of different vegetables, such as zucchini and peppers. It can also be made using minced meat stuffing. It is also possible to place potatoes in the pan if you wish. It’s entirely up to you, which is one of the reasons it’s nice to make “gemista” – you can’t really go wrong. At the end of the day, it’s just a “stuffed thing”.
Cooking Time: about 1.5h
6 juicy, ripe tomatoes
1 very large onion
500ml tomato passata
1 tsp sugar
10 tbs olive oil
1 finely chopped small onion
2 tbs chopped yellow pepper (you can also used the same amount of chopped celery, red or green pepper if you wish)
3 chopped garlic cloves
1 cup of arborio rice
3 tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley
1.5 tbs butter
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
75g pine nuts
1. Using a sharp knife, cut the tops of the tomatoes off, keeping their hats to the side. Scoop out the inside of the tomatoes with a sharp spoon, making sure not to pierce the skin. Put the pulp into a bowl and grate it so it becomes less chunky, or put the pulp in a blender and pulse it to a thick juice.
2. Add the passata, red pepper flakes, and sugar to the thick juice. Also add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Peel off the brown skin of the very large onion. Cut a small lengthwise (from top to bottom) wedge out of the onion. Boil some water in a pot on the stove, and place the onion inside until it becomes soft. Once it becomes soft, turn off the heat and let it sit inside the water until you are ready to use it.
4. Preheat the oven to 170C. Heat 5tbs of olive oil in a pan and saute the onions, garlic, pine nuts and yellow pepper until the onions are softened but not burnt. Once the onions are softened, add about 3 cups of the tomato mixture. Bring to the boil and then stir in the rice. If necessary, add about 1/2 cup of the water from the pot with the onion in it, to prevent the mixture sticking. You may need to add less or more water depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes. Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes, until the rice starts absorbing the liquid. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley.
5. Sprinkle the inside of the tomatoes with a little salt. Fill each tomato about 2/3 full with the rice mixture and put the hats on. Carefully peel a layer from the onion and fill about 2/3 full with the rice mixture. Arrange the tomatoes and onions in a large ovenproof dish – about 20 to 30cm in diameter. You may have to place the onions on their side as the filling can easily come out.
6. Drizzle the remaining olive oil on top of the tomatoes and onions. Sprinkle a little salt on the same. You may also wish to sprinkle a little sugar on top of the tomatoes. Dot the butter on the tomatoes and onions. Pour about 1 cup of water from the pot with the onion in it gently around the “gemista”.
7. Bake for about 1.5 hours, basting the “gemista” 3 or 4 times. You may need to add a little more water if the sauce becomes too dry, but this will depend on your tomatoes and their juiciness. When the “gemista” is ready, there should be some thickened sauce on the bottom and the “gemista” should be soft, but not burnt or falling apart. Serve with yoghurt or feta cheese.