Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Gemista

When I was growing up, my mom would always ask my brother and me what we wanted to eat the next day for our main meal. She was hoping for an answer, any answer, to just put her out of the misery of trying to come up with yet another dish for us.

I couldn't understand at the time how difficult it was to figure out what to cook for your kids every single day. Something that they wouldn't complain about, that they would eat each and every morsel of, that they would happily eat the following day as well.

I didn't understand that then, but now, even if I only have to cook for myself and my boyfriend on a daily basis, I understand how tricky it is.

For me, back then, the option was obvious. When my mom would ask me what I'd like to have for dinner the next day, my answer, nine out of ten times, would be gemista, my favorite dish in the whole wide world.

Gemista (or yemista) is a traditional Greek dish of stuffed tomatoes and bell peppers that are baked in the oven. The stuffing can either be vegetarian/Lenten, with rice and various herbs, or it can contain minced meat, veal or beef in particular. There are countless versions of gemista around Greece and every household has its own recipe for it.

My mom was and is the master of gemista. She whips them up in no time even though it's a rather time-consuming dish and her version is the one I have always preferred to cook and eat. The non-vegetarian one, which is the best in my opinion. With potatoes and a rich tomato sauce to boot, they are dangerously delicious. You can't eat just one, even though I try every time.

This dish belongs to the category of Greek dishes called "Ladera" (of which I have written before in this and this post), meaning dishes prepared with olive oil and without the addition of any other type of fat. Gemista are meant to be cooked during the summer when tomatoes and peppers are at their peak, nevertheless, I cook them all year long. They're just too good to be enjoyed only during the summer.

It is a perfectly balanced meal, bursting with fresh and vibrant colors and flavors. The tomatoes and peppers, surrounded by the sumptuous tomato sauce, melt in your mouth, and once you cut one open, the plumped up rice and minced beef, having soaked up all the juices from the vegetables, slowly and gently fall onto the sauce, creating the most amazing mouthful. The only thing you need to complete the picture is lots of feta, good bread and a glass of red wine.

Gemista - Greek Stuffed Tomatoes and Peppers with Rice and Minced Beef

The gemista can be served either warm or cold, even straight out of the fridge and they're equally delicious.

The stuffing of the peppers always comes out a little dry because the peppers are not a juicy vegetable. That's were the sauce comes in; spoon a little on top and it will be beautifully succulent.

Make sure you don't cut the potatoes too thick otherwise they'll take forever to cook.
Pair the gemista with a bottle of dry red wine, like a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yield: 12 gemista / 4-6 main-course servings

6 large, ripe, juicy and firm beefsteak tomatoes
6 large green bell peppers
260 ml good quality olive oil
1 large onion, grated
1 long sweet red pepper, minced
½ small carrot, minced
500 g minced veal or beef (from a lean piece of veal/beef)
200 g long grain rice
A bunch of flat-leaf parsley (leaves and stalks), finely chopped
3-4 medium-sized potatoes, cut into medium-sized pieces or wedges
400 g passata (which is tomato purée, not paste)
1 Tbsp caster sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: small food processor, large enough baking pan to fit all the tomatoes and peppers

Rinse and drain the tomatoes and bell peppers. Cut off their tops (where the stem is), with a serrated knife (cut a thin slice, don't cut too low) and make sure to keep the corresponding lid close by, so they don't get mixed up.
Remove the seeds and membranes from the bell peppers, rinse the insides and drain them. Using a spoon, scoop out the insides (most of the flesh, juices and all the seeds) of the tomatoes, being careful not to scoop too close to the skin, you need to leave a layer of flesh otherwise they'll break open, and place them in your food processor. Process the insides of the tomatoes to a pulp.

Place the tomatoes and bell peppers (with lids on) inside the baking pan you're using.

Prepare the filling
In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add 60 ml of the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the grated onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the minced sweet red pepper and carrot and sauté for 2-3 minutes until they soften a bit and then add the minced veal/beef. Sauté the meat for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously, until it changes color (from red becomes light brown-ish). Add the reserved tomato pulp along with the rice, the chopped parsley, a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. You need to have enough liquid in there to cook the rice so if the tomato pulp is not enough, add up to ½ cup of water. See the photos for reference. Stir well and allow to come to the boil. Immediately turn heat down to low, put on the lid and let simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the rice is almost cooked but still al dente, the meat is half cooked and the mixture is slightly juicy, not overflowing with juices. Essentially, what you want at this point is for the filling to cook but not all the way through because it will continue cooking in the oven.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius / 390 Fahrenheit.

When your filling is ready, take each tomato and pepper that you have arranged in the baking pan and, using a spoon, fill them up to three-quarters, in order to allow the mixture to expand while cooking and to not overflow or break up the vegetable. Something that admittedly happens to me all the time. If you don't mind a more messy/rustic presentation, don't worry too much about it if that happens. Also, make sure to put the corresponding lid properly on each vegetable and try to stand the vegetables (particularly the peppers which tend to fall on their side) upright. Best way to do that, is have them lean over the sides of the tray or against each other.
Add the potatoes in-between the tomatoes and peppers, this will also help them stand up straight, and pour over the passata (tomato purée). Then pour over the rest of the olive oil (200 ml) and 300 ml of tap water. Add salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper and add a little sugar on top of each tomato and bell pepper (about 1 Tbsp in total).

Oh, by the way, sometimes, depending on the size of tomatoes and peppers, I end up with leftover filling, which is great! Because I cook it for a little while longer and then I eat it straight from the saucepan whilst waiting for my gemista to cook.

Place the baking pan on the middle rack of the oven (if your oven is small, like mine, place it on the lower rack) and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the tomatoes and peppers soften and take on a brown color on top, the sauce thickens and the potatoes are cooked. While baking, it's a good idea to pour some of the cooking liquid from the pan over the vegetables from time to time, in order to keep the tops from drying up.

Take them out of the oven and allow them to slightly cool. Eat them warm or at room temperature, especially during the summer. Add a lot of sauce over the top and a couple of potatoes on each plate, and don't forget the feta, the bread and the wine.

You can keep the gemista in the fridge for a couple of days.

More recipes for stuffed vegetables:
Greek Stuffed Eggplants with Beef and Tomato Sauce Filling and Kefalotyri Cheese - Melitzanes Papoutsakia


  1. Beautiful as ever...; they are gorgeous. I would try this with the smaller peppers you get here. And now I know how much my mother had to put up with! :-)

  2. Lovely! I wish you posted it last week! I made a similar dish :)

  3. Stunning photos and stunning ingredients. What amazing colour!

  4. MMmmm the perfect summer comfort dish! What part of Greece are you from? My relatives all put raisins and pine nuts in their gemista (Asia Minor).

  5. Mark is always saying, "Let's make stuffed peppers." Now we have the perfect recipe! Do you always use green peppers, or would red/orange/yellow work, too? (My guess is that probably breaks tradition... and green is THE pepper.) ~ David

  6. Shri — it will great with smaller peppers, but you'll have a lot of leftover stuffing.

    Ahn — oh, you can still give it a try, right? :)

    Anna — thanks!

    banana wonder — I was born and raised in Athens but I have roots in Asia Minor and Constantinople and various places in Greece. I have another family recipe for stuffed peppers, made with pine nuts and raisins. For another time :)

    David — yes, I always use green peppers. The flavor of the others is not the same as the green ones'. In Greece we have two types of green bell peppers though, which surprisingly I can find in Holland as well. The ones pictured above, the dark-green, thick-fleshed ones and the lighter-green, thin-fleshed and sometimes smaller ones.

  7. Love it too and my favorite growing up was with a yogurt sauce; except it was our grandmother who did all the cooking and she never asked what we wanted; just made things day in and day out, bless her!

  8. I love stuffed vegetables! And I love greek stuffed vegetables even more!

  9. I absolutely love them! They go just great with Bulgarian red peppers and my mom prepares them in a large cooking pan instead of oven. But I'm sure I would love this too.

    I also fancy some yogurt and few drops of lemon juice while eating, yumyum craving badly now :D

  10. Delicious Magda - and such beautiful photos. My mother in law taught me how to make a vegetarian version of yemista when I was first married and it just seems to get better each year. Especially in summer when the tomatoes are at their best. I can't wait to give your family recipe a try - the meat will make a great addition to warm us up while waiting for Spring to arrive in Sydney ; )

  11. Ah, very cool! I lived in Athens for a year after college with all my relatives and ended up playing volleyball for Panathiniakos. Where in Asia Minor? My yiayia was from Constantinopoli and my pappou from Kapadocia. I went to Kappadocia to find his city even!

    1. My great great grandmother was from Kappadokia. What a coincidence! I have lived in Athens (suburbs) my whole life, well, up until five years ago when I moved to Holland. It's nice that you got the chance to live in Greece. Panathinaikos, huh? I'm with Olympiakos, sorry :)

  12. Yum, I love your blog, very familiar in some ways, as i fell in love with Greek food while I was living in Holland for 2 years and met a very good friend of mine who is greek...from the first time she cooked for me (Hilopites Soup with mushroom, tomato and feta) I was totally hooked! I will try this dish when it gets a bit colder in Paris!

    1. Mmmm hilopites, I love hilopites. Thanks for taking the time to leave me a note and I hope you enjoy the gemista. I love Paris by the way. :)

  13. Thanks for the recipe, I've made this twice with eggplants and both times they came out perfect and delicious! It's hard to take good pictures of these things though. With my phone's camera, my eggplant gemista looks like a pile of maggots in a clamshell :p

  14. The first time I followed your recipe for gesmista it was easy and delicious. Gemista is one of my boyfriend's favourite dishes, so I'm cooking it again today :-) Your recipes never let me down, thank you!

  15. For one more time congratulations Magda! I followed the steps one by one and as a result I had my neighbor knocking on the door asking me what I am cooking!!!! Perfect dish, easy to make, delicious with feta cheese and warm bread.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks Anthony. I'm glad you enjoyed them!

  16. Thank you for putting in the time and effort to show us how to recreate this receipe. I am very excited to try it.

  17. Fantastic! Just like our Greek vacation. Thanks so much. Is it possible to use a bit less olive oil for the sauce do you think? (just a personal taste). I cant wait to try out more of your recipies! Efcharisto!

    1. Hi Peter! Of course, you can use less depending how much you enjoy dipping your bread in the juices :) Thanks!

  18. This is a great vegan version of the Greek classic. This dish saved my boyfriend's life when he was on a 2 week cycle trip in Northern Greece! Great recipe!

    1. This is not vegan, it is the classic Greek gemista with meat ;)

  19. This recipe turned out beautifully, just like my mum's. Thank you!

    1. You are most welcome Theoni. I'm glad you liked it :)

  20. Hi there,
    living in England the last 16 years, I have tried numerous times to introduce my fellow co-workers to the wonders of the Greek cuisine. The breakthrough happend with this dish. We had a day when everyone was bringing food from the place they originate. Needless to say that gemista dissapear first from the table, alongside halvas and the cheese pies. To play safe, I had done the vegeterian version, however that didnt stop anyone from emptying the plates. For one more time, thank you for sharing the recipe and well done. I was just about to vote, but I read your reply about the team you were supporting in Greece...now I changed my mind....(only kidding...)

    1. Haha thanks Anthony. I'm so glad you like my recipe and it's great that you're trying to introduce people to Greek cuisine. It is delicious and healthy! :)