The main idea and concept for this dish comes from my aunt. It’s her adaptation of the Mexican classic – Chile Rellenos. In typical Rellenos fashion, her version uses only cheese in the filling (no spinach). After stuffing the peppers, she batter-fries them in an egg white-flour mixture before dousing in tomato sauce. Traditionally they’d use poblano peppers, but she found the locally available banana peppers to work as a great substitute – they are spicier than regular peppers as well as hold their shape upon cooking. I can’t remember when I adapted this recipe and started adding spinach to the filling. And I don’t ever recall frying them. (There is another version of this on my blog using a slightly different method. That is very good too, but I mostly follow this now.)
Banana peppers/bajji molagas are hotter than bell peppers. They have the flavour and crunch of a bell pepper and the spice levels of a mild green chilli. Once they are roasted and their seeds removed, their spice levels get even milder.
The process to make these rolls is admittedly fiddly, and chances are they won’t be perfectly shaped on your first attempt. Mine weren’t for a long time, but it really doesn’t matter. Tears only require a bit of patchwork to contain the filling, and even if they spill into the sauce, they get baked together anyway. This will hardly make a difference in the final dish. Bakes are very forgiving in this regard.
Just so you know what to expect, here’s the process: first roast the peppers. Whilst they’re roasting, make the tomato sauce. Once the peppers are blistered, soft, and cool enough to handle, peel away the papery outer skins. With a little practise, they will come away with one swift pull, but be gentle; you want to keep them as intact as possible. Once you remove the skins, scoop out the seeds and discard. You then open them up flat – like a butterflied squid. Make the filling: blanched spinach, paneer, green chillies and salt get blitzed up into a coarse paste. Then divide the paste between the banana peppers and roll them up as tightly as you can.
A layer of tomato sauce goes at the bottom, followed by the banana pepper rolls. Top with the remaining sauce and grated mozzarella. Bake until the sauce is bubbly and the peppers are yielding. Best served with lots of crusty bread to mop it all up with.
A few notes:
1) The roasting process is simple enough but make sure to follow the exact oven temp. If the oven is set too hot, the skins will blister too quickly and the peppers won’t cook enough to mellow their spice levels. And if the oven is not hot enough, the peppers will cook to a mush and the skins won’t come away easily. This sounds more complicated than it is, but I had to put it out there. It’s an important point to remember.
2) Choose the biggest banana peppers you can find. The bigger they are, the easier they are to handle.
3) I’ll say this again, but it’s not the end of the world if your peppers are not intact. I promise you it won’t affect the taste of the final dish (more on this in the recipe below).
SPINACH & PANEER STUFFED BANANA PEPPER BAKE
- 15 large banana peppers
- 280 grams paneer, roughly chopped
- 250 grams spinach
- 2 green chillies, roughly chopped
- 50 grams mozzarella, grated
- A small handful of basil leaves, to serve
- Salt, to taste
- 10 large tomatoes
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 7 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 3 tsp oil
- Salt, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 190 C. Place the banana peppers on a baking tray. Roast for 30 mins. The skins will look puffed up and browned. Remove and set aside to cool slightly.
- Sauce: Whilst they roast, make the sauce. Blanch the tomatoes in hot water until the skins start to peel away. Discard the skins. Blitz the tomatoes in a blender and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a pot and sauté onions and garlic until browned. Add the pureéd tomatoes, salt, oregano, and chilli flakes. Cover and cook over a medium heat until the sauce reduces and thickens—about 10 mins. Stir occasionally while the sauce cooks.
- Set aside until ready to use. The sauce can be made up to a week in advance. Or kept frozen for a month.
- Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, starting at the top, peel the papery skins in a downward motion. Some will peel away completely intact whilst some may not. This is completely fine. Just try and get most of the skins off without tearing the peppers too much. (Tears can be patched up later.) Pinch away and discard the stems.
- Once you have the skins off, run your finger into the top layer gently, and open them up flat (see photo in the post above). Remove the seeds and discard. Lay them out on a large surface or your kitchen counter.
- Filling: Add the spinach to a dry pan and move it around for 2-3 mins until just wilted. Drain in a colander, pushing it down with a spoon to get all the water out. Add the spinach, paneer, green chillies and salt to a blender. Pulse until it comes together into a coarse paste.
- Divide the paneer paste into 15 portions. Place the filling on one side of the opened banana pepper. Roll it up encasing the filling within. Repeat with the rest of the peppers.
- (Note: if using torn peppers, roughly wrap them as well as you can around the filling and place them in the dish - it’s fine even if some of the filling starts to fall out).
- Assembly: pour ¾ ths of the tomato sauce at the bottom of a baking dish. Place the rolled peppers on top. If your dish is not large enough, place the rolls in 2 layers.
- Pour the remaining sauce over the top. Top with grated mozzarella. Bake in a preheated 180 C oven for 20-25 mins until the cheese has melted through and the sauce is bubbly. Top with chopped basil.
- Serve immediately with slices of bread to mop it all up with.
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