These satisfying Stuffed Italian Peppers are the perfect summer-fall transition dinner. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: Stuffed peppers and shredded Cuban pork sandwiches serve as the perfect summer-fall transition meals

BUCKHANNON — These are the dog days of summer, right? The temperatures have been elevated along with humidity. In the same heat, school is resuming. This marks the unofficial arrival of autumn. I do not have any children in my household, yet the beginning of the school year still carries meaning. Possibly it is nostalgia from my school days, but even presently, I notice myself adjusting my routine.

The routine with my dogs becomes more rigid. Walks are earlier in preparation for cold dark evenings to come. I accomplish weeknight meal planning as I tend to eat dinner earlier in the winter. There is less spontaneity and more focus. The change is not bad — just an adjustment. I switch focus from grilling recipes to slow-cooking recipes. The crock pot and Dutch ovens undergo a dusting for use.

As I am getting my house and life adjusted to the seasonal change, I aim for simple meals. Central West Virginia is fortunate to have summer produce into September. I utilize this in my cooking as long as it is available. This is also time to preserve summer’s bounties. If you spot extra corn at the farmer’s market, it is easy to preserve in the freezer for a taste of summer in December. Pickling is ideal for an abundance of cucumbers and peppers. Homemade tomato sauce, juice and soup far surpass grocery store varieties.

Stuffed peppers are the perfect summer-fall transition dinner. This can be peak production season for peppers. I believe many of us can attest to a favorite childhood recipe for this dish. Stuffed peppers are in the spaghetti category: Everyone has their own method (and it is, of course, the best). I am going to share my Italian take on these delights.

I start with a switch of the common bell pepper for hot banana peppers. If your family does not enjoy heat, simply swap in sweet banana peppers. I choose banana peppers to create a more balanced ratio of filling:peppers. While summer peppers are in season, I want to showcase them in every bite.

I stick with the conventional ground beef filling. The grain addition is farro, which is a hearty Italian grain full of fiber and protein that is similar to barley. It retains its texture throughout the slow-cooking process. The herb garden remains plentiful, so fresh basil, parsley and oregano are mixed in. Parmesan cheese and fennel drive home key Italian notes.

Lastly, a bright marinara is utilized in both the filling and for the cooking sauce. For this meal I use the slow-cooker. A Dutch oven works wonderfully, too. The peppers become tender, and the savory filling pairs beautifully with the marinara and heat. Finish these with an extra sprinkle of Parmesan, and you have a fabulous, relatively hands-off dinner. The peppers may be prepped the day before for convenience.

The next recipe is less traditional, but also is an excellent transition meal: shredded Cuban pork sandwiches. Pork shoulder flavored heavily by citrus and garlic is slow-cooked until it’s fall-apart tender. I do a quick pickling of cucumbers, chilies and onions for freshness. The sandwiches have Swiss cheese and mustard, as in a classic Cubano. Crusty French-style rolls stand up to the pressing and complement all the layers with a hard exterior. This recipe is great for feeding a group, or for a make-ahead, on-the-go meal option. How ever you serve them, they are delicious.

Both of these recipes deliver fantastic results with very little in-person kitchen time. Less time in the kitchen allows for more time around the table hearing the latest classroom adventures. Life, work and school have enough rules, so allow yourself some leeway with cooking. Add a twist to your usual recipes; this is exactly how new flavor combinations are discovered. Outstanding food does not have to be laborsome and time-consuming. Simple food treated with care will have table guests grinning with satisfaction. Enjoy this transition period of seasons along with summer’s final produce.

Happy Cooking. Peace.

Traditional bell peppers are switched out for hot banana peppers (or sweet, if you prefer a milder flavor). / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Italian Stuffed Peppers

Ingredients:

  • 6-10 (depending on size) hot banana peppers, or sweet
  • 2 cups marinara (homemade or store bought)

For the filling:

  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • 1 cup cooked farro
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 cup marinara sauce (homemade or store bought)
  • 1/4 cup fresh herbs (combo of parsley, basil, oregano), or 2 teaspoons dried parsley and basil plus 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • Cracked pepper to taste (I am generous here)

Directions: Mix all filling ingredients until combined. Stuff the mixture into the peppers. Place peppers in a slow cooker, pour over marinara. Cook on high for 4-5 hours.

For the sauce: Combine: 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 tablespoon lemon juice.

Add a homemade relish, Swiss cheese, mustard, a crusty French-style roll, and voila! You have a savory make-ahead meal in these Shredded Cuban Pork sandwiches. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Shredded Cuban Pork

Ingredients:

  • 3 lb pork shoulder
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon lime zest
  • 6 garlic cloves peeled
  • 1 hot chili chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano chopped, or 2 teaspoons dried
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 2 tablespoons oil

Directions:

  1. In a bowl combine salt, black pepper and cumin. Thoroughly rub pork with all the spice mixture. Heat oil on high in the pressure cooker and sear until browned on all sides.
  2. Add remaining ingredients, reserving some cilantro to stir into the pulled pork. Pressure cook for 60 min. Natural release 20 min. Remove pork and shred. Stir in remaining cilantro, squeeze fresh lime and lemon juice, sprinkle with flaky salt to finish.

*All ingredients may be added to a slow cooker. Cook on high for 6-8 hours.

For the relish: Combine thinly sliced cucumbers, onions, and a hot chili. Toss in white vinegar, season with salt and fresh dill.

For the sandwich: Choose a hard French-style roll. Slice in half, spread butter on one side and yellow mustard on the other. Then layer Swiss cheese, pork and pickled veggies. Press the sandwich in panini maker, or place in a heavy skillet, cover with parchment, and weight it down with another heavy skillet or pot on top of the sandwich.

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