Gemistá, another stuffed dish from the Mediterranean

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“Tomorrow I’ll prepare stuffed tomatoes,” says Adrianí in her melodious voice. It’s the sign that we have reconciled.” These tomatoes from Adrianí Jaritos, wife of police chief Kostas Jaritos (characters created by the Greek novelist Petros Márkaris), are the equivalent of the peace pipe for this couple. And throughout Greece those tomatoes, and also peppers, along with spicy rice, are known as gemistá, a term that might be translated as ‘stuffing’.

In Greece –and the taverns of Mykonos are no exception– gemistá vindicates the flavours and culinary techniques of the eastern Mediterranean. In that area –which includes Turkey, the Middle East and, of course, Greece and its innumerable islands– all kinds of stuffed dishes are popular, dating, it is believed, from the tables of Babylon.

According to Paul Balta in Drinking and Eating in the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean products that were mashed, chopped, served in pastry or stuffed “constituted basic food that was cheap and filled the bellies of simple people.”

Initially, stuffed foods were a complement to the dishes that the wealthier people were eating –fish, lamb, chicken or quail– but the Arabs popularised them and extended the technique to vegetables: eggplants, artichokes or onions first; then courgette, tomatoes and pepper from the New World, spread throughout the Mediterranean.

This gave rise to the Greek dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and the Turkish dolmas (entire cabbages or their leaves), the courgettes stuffed with lamb in Lebanon (koosa bil ablama) or the stuffed artichokes of Israel. Although it should be mentioned that these geographic distinctions are imprecise because all these territories were for centuries part of the Ottoman Empire.

Logically, the secret of gemistá is in the quality of the tomatoes and peppers –the containers– which should be flavourful, mature and firm enough to support the heat of the oven. The variations appear in the rice stuffing, which can contain pine nuts, raisins and mint, or simply be seasoned with parsley, salt and pepper. There’s always olive oil and often cheese in small pieces or grated.

Adrianí Jaritos has another secret: let the gemistá sit all night so that it can fully absorb the olive oil.