It was the titles of her books, with their literary allusions but mainly their fantastical combination of the ordinary and the imaginary, that intrigued me most about Nancy Willard. Her collection Household Tales of Moon and Water, from which the 'How to Stuff a Pepper' poem is taken, puts domestic life and the relationships formed within such a frame in a rather wondrous light.
Now, said the cook, I will teach youhow to stuff a pepper with rice.
Take your pepper green, and gently,
for peppers are shy. No matter which side
you approach, it's always the backside.
Perched on her green buttocks, the pepper sleeps.
In its silk tights, it dreams
of somersaults and parsley,
of the days when the sexes were one.
Slash open the sleeve
as if you were cutting into a paper lantern,
and enter a moon, spilled like a melon,
a fever of pearls,
a conversation of glaciers.
It is a temple built to the worship
of morning light.
Luis Melendez, Still Life with Tomatoes, a Bowl of Aubergines, and OnionsI have sat under the great globe
of seeds on the roof of that chamber,
too dazzled to gather the taste I came for.
I have taken the pepper in hand,
smooth and blind, a runt in the rich
evolution of roses and ferns.
You say I have not yet taught you
to stuff a pepper?
Cooking takes time.
Next time we'll consider the rice.
Nancy Willard, 'How to Stuff a Pepper'
Willard's poem, no doubt, is delightful to read and I particularly like the sense of bewilderment in the last lines, where preoccupations about real time seem to fracture the make-believe world of silk dreams and pearly temples of light. It is this tone of uncertainty that pulls the poem back into the physical realm. But for me, the ethereal and often mystical aspect of Willard's poetry render her work somewhat fanciful and escapist, and I much prefer the darkness of Angela Carter's magical realism or the underlying worldliness of William Blake's visionary universe.
~ Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes ~
This dish, for me, evokes memories of a childhood past - long summers by the sea, donkey rides, unspoken desires, and the sweet aroma of crushed grapes. A sublime array of reds and golden yellows that oozes the sun-drenched flavour of the Mediterranean.
5 medium ripe tomatoes
2 medium onions, chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
the flesh of 1 aubergine, 2 courgettes and 2-3 ripe tomatoes, chopped
handful chopped parsley
1-2 tsp dried mint
6-8 tbsp long grain rice
200 g feta cheese, crumbled
salt and pepper
8-10 potatoes, peeled and cut in cubes
Prepare the vegetables: Thoroughly wash all vegetables. Slice the top of the tomatoes but leave a small piece attached to create a lid. Using a small spoon, scoop out the flesh taking care not to pierce the skin, transfer to a large bowl and chop. Cut off the top of the peppers and trim the stem. Discard the seeds and membranes. Arrange the tomatoes and peppers in a large roasting pan.
Scoop out the flesh of the courgettes, the aubergine and the extra tomatoes, chop and add to the bowl. Add the chopped onion and spring onion, minced garlic, chopped parsley and mint, crumbled feta cheese, rice and enough olive oil (about 3-4 tbsp) to bring all ingredients together. Season to taste and add the nutmeg (if using) but remember that the feta cheese is already salty so you don't need a lot of salt.
I am reminded here of a scene from the film A Touch of Spice by Tassos Boulmetis, in which the young protagonist Fanis, an accomplished cook at the age of 7, strikes an unusual friendship with Barbara, a woman running a brothel in late 1960s Athens, and advises her to add sugar to the stuffing.
Heat the oven to 195o C.
Stuff the vegetables: Stuff the tomatoes and the peppers with the rice mixture adding a little bit of the juice in the bowl otherwise it will get dry during cooking. (While stuffing, stir the mixture to make sure that the rice is evenly distributed and does't stay at the bottom of the bowl. It also helps to scoop up the mixture from the bottom of the bowl upward.) Cover the stuffed vegetables with their lids and arrange in the roasting pan snugly in an upright position. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
Peel and cut the potatoes in cubes, put in the bowl where you prepared the stuffing, season and toss in the juices left. Arrange in the pan around the vegetables and then pour all the juices from the bowl, with any remaining stuffing, over them. Top with a little water to just below the rim of the potatoes.
Bake for 1-1 1/2 hours until the rice has cooked through, the tomatoes and peppers have become tender, their skin has crinkled and blackened in parts, and the potatoes have crispened on the outside while still soft on the inside.
While the vegetables are roasting, you may need to add some liquid to the rice, using the juices from the pan, so that it doesn't dry out before it's cooked. Also check to see if you need to top up the water so that the potatoes don't stick to the pan. In the end, the vegetables should be left only with their juices.
Note 1: This dish takes about an hour to prepare but you are rewarded with a burst of summer flavours and any leftovers are delicious eaten cold the next day.