Typically, a visit to my parents’ house means nightly excavations of the refrigerator. This usually happens at around 3am while suspended in that dull familiar state of predatory, jetlagged inertia. The hypothalamus is only about the size of the chickpea but it oversees everything from our circadian rhythms to our appetites, and it plays a vital role in how we form emotional attachments. No wonder that mine regresses when I’m back in my old bedroom.
Anyway, on one such jaunt to the kitchen for snacks, I discovered an uninspiring stack of stuffed cabbage rolls. They turned out to be delicious and I was surprised to find them meatless, filled with dill-flecked rice and flush with sweet tomato. I considered asking for a recipe and then thought better of it. As much as I’m attracted to a style of cooking based on oral traditions, I don’t have the patience to roll cabbage. The thought alone gives me carpal tunnel syndrome.
Roulade, turducken, cannoli: some recipes for stuffed foods bring back repressed performance anxiety, like I’m memorising something for a standardised test and already looking forward to forgetting it. Other stuffed foods, such as crabmeat-stuffed flounder, sound like a troubled final resting place for leftovers and a solid reminder that “fishy” also means “suspect”. As my friend Lindsey’s mother told us when she caught us with a Ouija board in the sixth grade: “You need to let the past rest in peace, or it might come back to haunt you.”
As for stuffing that’s destined for the cavity of a roast turkey or chicken, I prefer it prepared as dressing: cooked in a vessel alongside the bird rather than inside it. This way, it avoids the dank fate of swelling inside the bird’s cavity, soaked in potentially salmonella-spiked juices that can only be tempered by annihilating the bird into a petrified relic.
How many cultures enjoy stuffed cabbage and think it belongs to them? I’m happy to eat the fruits of someone else’s labour, but my tendency to overcomplicate things stops at cabbage, a perfect vegetable that doesn’t need me choking it into savoury scrolls with irregularities and split seams that testify to my impatience. I am also bad at sewing, make-up, cake decorating and anything else that requires precision.
Cypriots ingeniously stuff the blossoms of courgettes – or zucchini or squash or marrows, as they’re also known. I love the Clementine-coloured flowers stuffed with goat’s cheese, then dipped in batter and fried, for a bite-sized happy-hour snack. In fact, I’ll tolerate most things that are stuffed with cheese as long as it isn’t a pizza crust. Jalapeno poppers, that means you. A cheese-filled New Mexican version of Mexican chiles rellenos (“stuffed chillies”) is ubiquitous here in Santa Fe, but the margin of error is high because the peppers, usually Anaheims, Big Jims or poblanos, are so big and because the coating is often damp and bready rather than eggy and soufflé-like.
Pretty courgette flowers eventually grow into courgettes, which are stuffed throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. One of my least favourite regional dishes, they are the vegetable equivalent of pasta in a bread bowl. Hollowing out a vegetable only to fill it with something else has always struck me as a weird collision of wanton and prim. In a word, it’s stuffy.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico
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