Petits farcis—stuffed summer vegetables—are a classic Provençal dish, although variations exist in many forms all around the Mediterranean. Summer vegetables come in glorious colors—bright yellow squash, blushing tomatoes, deep green zucchinis and purple eggplants—and it’s a real pleasure to take all these colors from the market to the kitchen. The principle of petits farcis is to use the very best of these bright vegetables at the height of the season, stuffing them with meat that has been seasoned with herbs.
Every French family makes petits farcis according to its own tradition, and the dish is most commonly made at home. If you ask nicely for the recipe, you might be lucky enough to be pulled aside, where the “secret ingredient” for the stuffing will be whispered in your ear. Perhaps it will be a pinch of saffron. A dash of cumin. Some fresh basil. My own French family spent many years living in the south of France, but its secret ingredient reveals its Charentais roots, and a tablespoon of Cognac brings a very distinct flavor to the stuffing.
There also seems to be quite some debate about whether petits farcis should be served in sauce. My husband has fond memories of the stuffed zucchini with fresh tomato sauce that he regularly ate at his high-school cafeteria, whereas his mother prefers to serve petits farcis without sauce, insisting that the vegetables are juicy enough by themselves. I like to take advantage of the piles of bell peppers at the summer market to make a batch of bell pepper coulis, which brings a delicate sweetness to the dish.
Every single version of petits farcis is different, and changes each time it is made, according to what is available in the garden or the market. The version given here uses tomatoes, but you can also use round zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants and summer squash (such as pattypan). In addition, this particular recipe calls for pork, but you can also use veal or beef. And if possible, use fresh herbs straight from the garden rather than dried ones.
Petits farcis work well as part of a buffet or as the main dish at a large family dinner. They can be eaten cold, in the shade of a plane tree on a hot summer’s day in Provence and with a glass of chilled rosé; or warm, when the change to cool weather has come through and you need to slip a cardigan around your shoulders. This particular recipe is very easy to multiply and makes a simple summer holiday meal. I recommend making it in the morning, before the heat of the day sets in, then either reheating the petits farcis gently in the oven before serving (15–20 minutes on medium, about 350°F/180°C) or simply serving them cold.
Petits Farcis with Red Pepper Coulis
Makes 9 stuffed tomatoes.
100 grams bread, crust removed
1/4 cup milk
9 large tomatoes
350 grams minced pork
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (1/2 teaspoon dried)
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano (1 teaspoon dried)
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Cognac
salt and pepper
150 grams grilled red bell peppers, peeled (either homemade or in a jar)
1/4 teaspoon chili powder (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to medium temperature (350°F/180°C). Prepare a tray with some aluminium foil brushed with a small amount of olive oil and set aside.
2. Break the bread into small pieces, add the milk and leave to soak.
3. Cut a small “hat” off each tomato, then carefully remove the core.* Place the hollowed tomatoes and hats on the tray.
4. Squeeze out any excess milk from the bread, then combine with the parsley, onion, garlic, herbs, egg yolks and Cognac in a large bowl. Add the pork and seasoning, then, using your hands, mix well for about 30 seconds.
5. Drop about 10 grains of rice in the bottom of each tomato, then fill each one up to the top with the stuffing, packing firmly but gently.
6. Scatter a few extra grains of rice on the bottom of the tray, then place the tray in the oven and bake for 30–35 minutes, according to the size of the vegetables. Cut one partially open with a sharp knife if you’re not sure they’re cooked.
7. Prepare the coulis by placing the red peppers and chili powder (if using) in a food processor and blending until a liquid is formed. Simply season to taste and place in a jam jar to serve.
8. If serving the stuffed vegetables warm, let them sit for at least 20 minutes before placing them in a serving dish with a little hat placed on top of each. If serving cold, let them cool for half an hour, then cover and refrigerate them until you’re ready to eat.
*I always put the tomato cores in the fridge and use them in a pasta sauce later in the week, but they can also be used in the stuffing.
Extra cooking notes: Placing a few grains of rice in the bottom of each vegetable helps absorb the cooking juices. The extra grains of rice on the bottom of the tray will also help absorb any liquid that may escape. Petits farcis freeze very well, and if made in advance, are ideal for an easy weeknight dinner.
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