Ask any Greek child, what is their favourite dish and I am sure many would answer yemista – a dish of stuffed tomatoes and sometimes eggplant, zucchini or zucchini blossoms and capsicums that are baked in the oven. A childhood love of yemista never fades. The other day Mr K was reminiscing about how the capsicums were always his favourite and he would carefully select them from the big ‘tapsi’ containing the colourful yemista.
My mother in law is the master of yemista. Even now, as an octogenarian, she will often make this rather time-consuming dish in industrial quantities – enough for each of her four children and their families. Sometimes it is made with a little meat and rice - but more often that not she makes a vegetarian version. For very special occasions, the usual mixture of rice and herbs is dotted with little jewels - plump juicy currants and toasted pine nuts. The tops of the vegetables are well dusted with a layer of breadcrumbs which makes for super crunchy little 'hats'. The vegetarian version of yemista is particularly popular during the Lenten period, which happily coincides in Australia with the end of summer, when the tomatoes, zucchini (and their blossoms), capsicums and eggplants are at their best.
The secret to Yemista, like so many Greek dishes, is a generous amount of really good Greek olive oil and a really long cooking time. The cooking time must be long enough so that the tomatoes and other vegetables become wonderfully caramelized and the olive oil and tomato juices cook down into beautiful sauce, which seasons the extra potatoes filling the gaps between the vegetables. No vegetables melt in your mouth more than those in a dish of yemista.
Yemista Politika (Γεμιστές Πολιτικά)
There are countless versions of yemista and every Greek household has its own recipe. This is ours.
Preparation 30 minutes
Cooking time 60-90 minutes
12 medium tomatoes
4 small capsicums or eggplants
1 large zucchini, halved
Handful of zucchini blossoms
4-5 medium sized potatoes, peeled and sliced into gondolas
2 Large onions grated, one red and one brown
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 tablespoons chopped mint
4 tablespoons chopped dill
3/4 cup currants black, soaked in white wine or verjuice
3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 Cups oilve oil
1 tablespoon of Carolina rice per vegetable
1 cup of dry breadcrumbs (panko are good)
Sugar, salt and pepper
1. Slice the 'hats' off the vegetables making a lid. Using a spoon, remove the flesh of the tomatoes and zucchini/eggplant. Make sure you don't cut right through - you need to make a pouch for the rice filling. A melon ball utensil is particularly good for the zucchini and eggplant. Finely chop the flesh of the zucchini/eggplant. In a seperate bowl, purée the flesh of the tomatoes. Remove the seeds from the peppers. Pour a little salt inside the vegetables and place them upside down in the pan to release their juices.
2. Meanwhile, fry the onions with about 1 cup of olive oil, until translucent. Add the chopped vegetables and turn until they shine. Pour half the amount of puréed tomato, rice, herbs, garlic and, finally, raisins and pine nuts. Add salt, pepper and chilli oil to taste.
3. Place the vegetables cut side up in a large pan or tapsi. Sprinkle a pinch of sugar in each and fill to about 3/4 with the rice mixture. Place the lids back ontop of the vegetables. Drizzle with the remaining quantity of oil and grated tomato. Season with salt and pepper, then add 1 cup of water. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Bake in preheated oven at 180 ° C for 60-90 minutes. The vegetables can be served with a dollop of strained Greek yoghurt, or strained Greek yoghurt mixed with a little crushed fresh garlic.