Stuffed vegetables with rice – Greek Gemista (or yemista. It means filled with). Imagine a place where hot weather is only an excuse to go to the beach and stay all day long. In and out of the crystal, cool blue water for hours! Imagine the sweet weariness coming from all those hours of swimming, playing under the sun, and sunbathing. Then you go back home exhausted, ravenously hungry and a baking pan full of gemista has just come out of the oven. Imagine the taste…and rest…
This is not another traditional Greek dish. This is a plate served along with memories of endless summers, and precious moments with special people in unique places. Eating Greek gemista is a kind of life experience that engages all senses. Don’t let the simplicity of the ingredients fool you. I am telling you, these stuffed vegetables with rice are one of the most flavorful dishes you will ever have.
This dish satisfies everyone. It can be either vegan, vegetarian, or stuffed with all kinds of ground meat. It is usually served as a main dish but it can be an excellent side dish or even an impressive appetizer.
GEMISTA? WHAT IS THIS?
If you’re not familiar with this traditional Greek recipe, your plate features vegetables stuffed with vegetables’ insides (the vegetables that you are going to stuff), herbs, and grains (rice in this recipe) baked along with potato wedges in olive oil and tomato.
Let me be clear right from the beginning. There isn’t ONE gemista recipe. Period. Every house has its own version and if you research online, you will find tons of Greek stuffed vegetable recipes. I find this wonderful. I love the variety and I most definitely enjoy making new versions of my family’s favorite dishes.
MY FAMILY’S GEMISTA: SUMMER VERSION
In this post, you are about to find the cooking technique and tips so that you can replicate the Greek way of stuffing veggies.
This is the version I make for the summer when seasonal vegetables are sweet and delicious and it doesn’t really need too much trouble or ingredients for them to thrive! It is all about what the earth provides: vegetables, herbs, and grains and I like to enjoy them in their most simple, raw form.
That being said, it is the easiest gemista recipe (it really doesn’t get much simpler than this) and I strongly recommend making this recipe if it’s the first time you decide to make this dish.
MY FAMILY’S GEMISTA: WINTER VERSION
The addition of raisins and pine nuts gives another fabulous variation. This combo comes from the Greek cooks of Constantinople and Asia Minor and it is so delicious that travels you to exotic places through all those spices and sweet-nutty flavor. I usually combine it with ground meat (lamb is by far the best choice) and I call it the winter version. It is the absolute comfort food. So good for the long, cold winter days along with a rich cabbage salad. Patience, guys! Coming soon this winter!
WHY EAT THOSE STUFFED VEGGIES?
This is another recipe for the amazing Greek food category named “ladera”. A “ladero” dish is basically a vegan/vegetarian dish braised or baked with tomato and olive oil (λάδι=olive oil called ladi in Greek and gives the name “ladero”). The huge amounts of vegetables and herbs make those dishes a healthy bomb and their abundance in olive oil provides more nutritional benefits and so much flavor. It’s a unique way to combine healthy food and amazing flavor.
Some more “ladera” dishes that you should absolutely make:
Roasted vegetables (Briami) The best vegetables roasted in a thick olive oil-tomato sauce.
Braised green beans (Fasolakia) Simmer green beans with more veggies and herbs. Amazing.
Cabbage stew (Lahanorizo) A kind of winter risotto, the Greek way, of course.
Braised cauliflower (Kounoupidi kapama) Braised with the veggies and herbs. An easy and unique cauliflower dish.
Artichoke stew (Agginares a la polita) Artichoke as the star along with tons of healthy ingredients and marvelous taste.
RICE, POTATOES, AND OLIVE OIL ARE BAD NEWS FOR MY WAISTLINE
Not with this dish! It is full of veggies with no more than 1 tablespoon of rice per vegetable. However, if rice is out of the question for you, respect! See below variations and subs.
What’s next? Potatoes! The consumption of starchy vegetables is moderate in the Mediterranean way of eating. For Greek stuffed vegetables with rice, it’s no more than one medium potato per person. If you have 2 servings from one big baking tray of gemista, that means half a potato per serving. Come on, guys! Do I have to analyze this more?
Last but not least, olive oil! Yes, it is a lot if you aren’t Greek (lol). But don’t think that it will end up all on your plate. We use olive oil for baking the vegetables and part of it is absorbed by the ingredients but most of it remains at the bottom of the baking pan.
That being said, if there is plenty of leftover olive oil, don’t throw it away. Use it up to make a risotto, to simmer veggies, grains, etc.
IS THIS RECIPE TIME-CONSUMING? CAN I PREP IT AHEAD OF TIME?
Like all the good things in life, this recipe takes some time and it needs some prep time. Mostly scoop out tomato pulp and the insides of eggplant or zucchini if used. In any case, Greek stuffed vegetables come together a lot quicker than one might expect and it is mostly baking time. It takes more time the first time but soon you will be better with practice.
You may, of course, prep ahead of time everything. Either prepare the veggies and the stuffing without assembling (no stuffing) or assemble everything in the baking pan and bake the following day. Either way, keep everything in the fridge preferably covered. Don’t forget to bake in a preheated oven.
GREEK GEMISTA – THE RECIPE
STEP 1 – PREPARE THE VEGGIES
Select your favorite veggies and place them in a baking tray along with the potatoes. This way you make sure that the veggies are packed closely but not squashed.
Start by cutting the tops with a knife. Set the tops aside (don’t discard them) because we are going to use them later.
TOMATOES: Use a knife to loosen the flesh and go around the tomato edges. Scrape out ONLY the pulp (the placenta) and the seeds and leave the tomato walls intact. If tomato walls are too thin, they won’t keep the rice and they will collapse during baking.
BELL PEPPERS: you should add at least 2-3 peppers. They will release their delicious bitter-sweet flavor all over the baking dish. You will taste some pepper-flavored tomato and you are gonna love it!
The ideal ratio of tomato-pepper is half tomatoes, half-peppers. The thing is that my boys absolutely love stuffed tomatoes and I had to adjust the quantity accordingly. You do the same.
MORE VEGETABLES: Yes, please! You may stuff eggplant, zucchini, zucchini flowers, and all kind of peppers, onions (loooove them) almost all kinds of veggies that can be stuffed. I have a sweet spot for zucchini and eggplant because their insides contain water and they make my gemista even juicier. Not to mention their taste.
Keep in mind that the vegetables should be of equal size. You don’t need a ruler or something, don’t worry! Just use your sight and common sense. I chose tomatoes, peppers, and one eggplant for my gemista this time.
Before you place the veggies back in the tray season well their empty shells. Place tomatoes, and eggplant (zucchini if used) upside down to remove excessive water and go straight for the stuffing.
STEP 2 – PREPARE THE STUFFING
This is smart cooking at its best. We use tomato, eggplant, and zucchini both ways: the insides to make a delicious stuffing and then enclose the stuffing inside the veggies. It will be slowly and beautifully baked along with olive oil. Brilliant, isn’t it?
If there’s any leftover stuffing, freeze it and use it another time in another batch of gemista (defrost for three to four hours). If the amount is insignificant, add it to the baking tray and cook it along with the veggies.
Let’s see how to proceed:
Your veggies are placed in the baking tray and their insides (tomato and eggplant flesh and seeds) are already available to make the stuffing.
THE HERBS: This recipe calls for the usual combo onion-garlic topped with tons of parsley-mint. You need no more. Believe me.
Keep in mind that fresh herbs are the big secret for a fragrant dish of Greek gemista. Let’s keep it tasteful and simple. Lots of fresh parsley and fresh mint. To the point that the stuffing is that green and you are wondering “Is this ok?” Yes! Absolutely! You are doing just fine.
THE RICE: So much debate over rice. What kind of rice? How much? White or brown? Two main categories are used for Greek stuffed vegetables: long-grain white (or brown) rice and medium-grain rice.
Long-grain rice comes out so light and dry and so it stays firm, fluffy, and separates after cooking. If you are fond of individual, discrete grains that don’t stick to your utensil, this is your kind of rice.
On the other side, a Greek traditional cook would swear that gemista is perfect with medium-grain rice. Yes, this is true too. This rice absorbs liquid easily while keeping the kernel intact. It is moister than long grain and fluffy right after it’s cooked BUT it tends to clump up as it cools. This is exactly why I don’t prefer this type of rice. Gemista is so so yummy the following day and I don’t like to eat a delicious “mass” of rice.
My verdict? Go for the long-grain rice (sorry, mum, grandma, and mother-in-law).
I wouldn’t recommend basmati or Jasmine rice because their strong flavor will take over the flavor of the vegetables and herbs. Unless, you are fine with it but still this won’t be the classic, traditional gemista-flavored dish.
Short-grain rice and rice for risotto (like Arborio) are out of the question unless you love pudding inside your stuffed vegetables. It’s your game and you can do whatever you want, guys, but these types are a big “NO, NO” for my gemista.
Brown rice is recommended for the Mediterranean way of eating and I strongly suggest to give it a try. It needs some preparation (very easy and quick) because it takes longer to cook. Please see below the notes on the recipe card.
What? I am Greek, people. Of course, there is feta cheese in most of my recipes. Joking aside, even if you don’t like feta cheese, it is worth trying the way I recommend in this recipe. Add some crumbles on the top of 1-2 veggies just before baking. The baking procedure will take feta’s bold flavor away. I am sure you are going to find it delightfully pleasing.
Nonetheless, you may use parmesan cheese, pecorino, goat cheese or any kind of cheese you like. Alternatively, you may keep it cheese-free and vegan. As I said, this dish is versatile and satisfies everybody.
Start stuffing the vegetables.
MORE TIPS TO COOK GEMISTA LIKE A PRO
DON’T ADD WATER
Why add water to a vegetable dish? Vegetables contain the ideal amount of water and it is essential to be cooked into their own juices. You will end up with a thick layer of liquid in the baking tray if you follow my instructions.
Nevertheless, if tomatoes aren’t that juicy and you won’t use vegetables with high water content (like zucchini and/or eggplant), add another fresh tomato or tomato passata to the baking tray. That’s how you make sure that there is more than enough liquid.
DON’T PRECOOK THE RICE
A lot of Greek gemista recipes call for sautéing the filling and precooking the rice. My family’s cooks (yiayia=grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law) skip this step by using a simple trick. They rinse and soak rice for at least 30 minutes while preparing the veggies.
Firstly, they save time. Yeah. Love you, girls.
Secondly, the cooking time is shorter and you get more flavorful results. The rice is cooked slowly into the vegetable and herb liquid and the grains release their starches to create a creamy, luscious dish that won’t leave a sticky coating on the mouth. Heaven!
Oh, boy! So many variations that I could easily write a book.
WITH OR WITHOUT MEAT?
Totally up to you. If you ask my opinion I would say BOTH. Because either vegan, vegetarian or not, Greek stuffed vegetable dishes can please everybody.
I like to add ground meat to my winter version of gemista (see above). This time of the year you don’t usually find the most flavorful vegetables. So, I add ground meat (love ground lamb but you may add everything you want) to enhance the flavor a little more. But still, this is my point of view.
This dish can perfectly work with almost any grain: farro, bulgur, barley, pearl barley, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, etc. You name it! I haven’t used all the grains mentioned above because I like the fluffy texture of rice for my gemista. I have used farro and pearl barley so far but the verdict was unanimous in my house: back to the rice, mum. You know me. I like to please the crowd and keep my clan happy.
Nevertheless, if you go for other than the rice option, I would suggest preparing them before baking. Follow the instructions on the package and prep them halfway and then straight into the baking tray.
MY GEMISTA IS READY! NOW, WHAT?
I can see you! You are standing near the baking pan and you enjoy that heavenly smell along with the neighbors. Don’t do it! Don’t serve them hot right out of the oven. You have to wait for at least half an hour, preferably one hour. I know, it is so hard to do it but this is the only way to take advantage of their taste. Take a walk a bath or something instead.
Serve them with feta cheese (yes, even more. We added only crumbles on top of the veggies) and a nice, cool white wine like Sauvignon Blanc, Assyrtico, or Moschofilero. You may serve them along with a Greek salad (horiatiki) for the summer or this cabbage salad for the winter and a small slice of whole wheat bread, just to soak up some juices. Do it at least once. Yum!
Don’t eat all the veggies on the same day. You really need to taste them the following day. Cold or at room temperature. So so so good.
Stuffed Vegetables with Rice - Greek Gemista
- 10 medium-sized tomatoes, firm and ripe
- 5 medium-sized bell peppers
- 1 eggplant
- 5 medium-sized russet potatoes or Yukon Gold, cut into wedges
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 ½ cups fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 cups fresh spearmint, chopped
- 1½cups (280g) long-grain rice, white or brown*
- 3 tablespoons olive oil for the stuffing mixture
- 16 teaspoons olive oil over the vegetables
- 1 cup feta crumbles
- 1 medium fresh tomato, chopped or ¾ cup (180g) tomato passata
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Add the rice in a colander and rinse it until the water runs clear. Add it in a bowl and cover with water. Set aside to soak for at least 30 minutes.*
PREPARE THE VEGETABLES
- Wash and dry well. Place them in a baking tray along with potato wedges. The size of the pan depends on the size of the vegetables. They should be packed closely but not squashed.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (180°C).
- Use a knife to cut the tops off the tomatoes and create lids. Keep the tops aside.* Use a paring knife and go around the tomato to loosen the flesh. Use a teaspoon to carefully scoop out the tomato flesh and seeds. Reserve them in a medium-sized bowl.
- Use a knife to cut the tops off the peppers and create lids. Use your hands to clean carefully the pepper seeds and discard them.
- Cut the eggplant (or/and zucchini if used) lengthways (create lids and keep the top) and scoop out the seeds and flesh. Save the eggplant flesh (or/and zucchini) on the bowl with the tomato flesh and seeds.
- Season with salt and pepper the interior of all vegetables. Place all vegetables back to the baking tray. Place tomatoes, eggplant (and zucchini if used) upside down to disregard excessive water.
PREPARE THE STUFFING MIXTURE
- Chop roughly the tomato-eggplant flesh into the bowl. Drain well the rice. Add the rest of the ingredients into the bowl: onion, garlic, spearmint, parsley, rice, olive oil, pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Toss well with a spoon.
- Place all vegetables upright and spoon the stuffing mixture into the empty vegetable shells. Fill no more than ¾ from the top because the rice will expand while baking.
- Sprinkle feta cheese crumbles and drizzle about 1 teaspoon olive oil over each vegetable. Cover with their lids.
- Add the additional chopped tomato (or tomato passata) to leftover mixture (if any) and sprinkle it all around the baking tray. Highly recommended to add tomato instead of water.
- Spread potato wedges between the vegetables and season well with salt and pepper. Drizzle more olive oil if desired.
- Cover with foil and bake at 375°F (180°C) for about 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for another 15-30 minutes until the rice is fully cooked (check the rice before you turn off the heat). Add a little bit of water if there is absolutely no liquid in the baking tray.
- Remove from the oven and set aside for at least 1 hour before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.*