There can never be too many tomatoes. August’s heat is always made more bearable for me by peak tomato season. I love to eat them cut into thick rounds and topped on crusty well-buttered toasted bread, or chopped small in a simple Israeli salad alongside cucumber and herbs.
By this time of year, I end up with way more tomatoes from the garden and market than I could possibly use in sandwiches and salads alone. I’ll use the extra tomatoes to make sauce, but I also like to find a few more creative ways to take advantage of the bounty of summer.
Stuffed vegetables of all kinds were regularly made and eaten in our home, just as they are in many other Russian Jewish kitchens. Stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers and stuffed mushrooms are regional staples.
As I’ve explored and learned to cook the food of the former Soviet Union and of my family, Georgian cuisine has always stood out for its uniqueness. Georgia’s food is an intersection of cuisines from the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, due to Georgia’s location on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, north of Turkey and south of Russia. Ingredients like hot peppers and ajika (a hot sauce made out of them), fenugreek and pomegranate molasses appear in Georgian dishes alongside more familiar Eastern European staples such as beets, cabbage, dill, and mushrooms.
Georgian cuisine also benefits from its climate and terrain, which is extremely conducive to agriculture. The country is known for its wine and vast variety of food products including grains, melons, potatoes and much more.
Each region in Georgia has its own distinctive and rich cuisine. One of my favorite books on Georgian cooking is Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia: A Food And Wine Journey in the Caucasus. Capalbo offers an encyclopedic account of Georgian cuisine filled with detailed history and delicious recipes. I especially love her recipe for stuffed tomatoes.
With her recipe as a guide, and inspired by a few other Georgian stuffed tomato recipes, over time I’ve adapted the dish to my taste and simplified some of the steps.
What makes this stuffed tomato unique is the addition of the herb fenugreek, which adds a complex and almost curry-like flavor to the tomatoes. You can find fenugreek at most Middle Eastern and Persian markets, or online. The stuffing is made of earthy garlicky sautéed mushrooms, rice, and fresh parsley and dill. The tomatoes are nestled into a simple aromatic sauce, and then each one is topped with mozzarella that gets melty and burnished in the oven.
This dish is substantial enough to be served as a vegetarian main course, but it is not too rich and could easily be served as a side dish to a heartier meal. Like any good stuffed food, these taste even better when they are reheated the next day.
8 large firm tomatoes
Olive oil or sunflower oil, as needed
1 medium yellow or white onion, diced fine
1/2 tsp. dried fenugreek
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. dried red hot pepper or red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 cup water, or as needed
14 to 16 oz. cremini, oyster, or maitake mushrooms, diced small
2 large cloves garlic, minced fine
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked rice
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
4 oz. mozzarella, sliced to cover the top of the tomatoes, about 1/2-inch thick
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
2. Start by hollowing out the tomatoes: Cut off the top fifth, then run a small knife around the interior of the tomato. Carefully scoop out the inside. Finely chop up the remaining tops and what has been scooped out of them. Reserve.
3. To make the sauce: Add 2 Tbsp. of oil to a large pan over medium heat. Add the diced onions to the oil and sauté until softened and translucent. Add the fenugreek, coriander and hot pepper to the onions and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the reserved tomato mixture to the pan and 1/2 cup of water and bring the mixture to a simmer. Depending on how much liquid you have from your tomatoes, you may need to add more or less water. You want the sauce to resemble a thick tomato sauce in consistency. Simmer on low for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the sauce to reduce slightly while you prepare the filling. If desired, you can blend the sauce with an immersion blender or blender, although I prefer to keep small pieces of tomato intact.
4. To make the filling: Add 2 Tbsp. of oil to a large pan over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms to the pan and season with salt and pepper. Sauté the mushrooms until their liquid has been fully released and the mushrooms have begun to brown. During the last 2 minutes of cooking, add the minced garlic to the pan and sauté until the garlic is fragrant. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Add a cup of cooked rice, the chopped parsley and the chopped dill to the mushroom mixture. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed.
5. To assemble: Add the sauce to a baking or casserole dish that can snugly fit all of the tomatoes. On top of the sauce, place the hollowed out tomatoes. Generously fill each tomato with the mushroom mixture, and top with slices of mozzarella.
6. Bake the tomatoes for 30 to 40 minutes, or until hot, bubbly and with the cheese beginning to brown. Serve warm. Leftover tomatoes can be reheated in either an oven or microwave the next day. Serves 6 to 8.
Sonya Sanford is a chef, food stylist and writer.