Photo by Badseed

Yemista, with Meat and Meatless

Yemista, tomatoes stuffed with ground meat and rice, was almost always available in the tavernas when I first began going to Greece, and that made dining out in those days very simple. I almost never ordered anything else back then, because on top of being very inexpensive, they were always delicious, comforting, and satisfying. Even now, decades later, it’s hard for me to pass them up when they’re on the menu.

These days it seems more common for stuffed tomatoes and bell peppers to be baked together. The restaurant dish is almost always the meat-stuffed version, but at home people often cook meatless ones, using raisins and maybe nuts with the rice, and that’s what I make at home these days, when tomatoes are ripe and beautiful. In the home-cooked version, pieces of potato are often cooked along with the yemista, propping them up in the baking dish, soaking up the juices, and adding another dimension to the dish.

Meat/rice stuffing

  • ½ cup short grain rice (Arborio is good)
  • ½ lb lean ground beef or lamb
  • 1 medium onion, grated or finely chopped
  • ½ cup flat leaf parley leaves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh marjoram, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt
  • black pepper to taste
  • nutmeg—a pinch, or a couple grindings
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • 1 large or 2 small potatoes, cut into medium-sized wedges for the baking dish

Meatless stuffing

  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • 2 tablespoons currants
  • 13 cup olive oil
  • ¾ cup short grain rice (Arborio is good)
  • 1 large onion, grated or chopped
  • ¼ cup pine nuts—or substitute slivered almonds, chopped
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh marjoram chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • nutmeg, a pinch or couple gratings
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • 1 large or 2 small potatoes, cut into medium-sized wedges for the baking dish


Both Recipes

Wash the vegetables and cut off the stem end top, making about a ¼-inch slice, keeping the tops for later. Being careful not to scoop too close to the skin (leave about a ¼-inch shell), use a spoon to scoop out the insides (most of the flesh, juices, and all the seeds) of the tomatoes, into a bowl. Making sure to keep all the tomato liquid, take the pulp out, chop it, and return it, along with any juices, to the bowl.

Remove the seeds and membranes from the bell peppers, rinse the insides, and drain them.

Meat Stuffing

Put the oil in a large, heavy bottom sauté pan, over medium-high heat, add the onion, and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the meat and sauté for another 3 minutes or so, stirring with a fork, just until it loses its red color, and then add the rice, the herbs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, along with the tomato pulp and liquid. Taste for acidity and add the optional sugar, if you like.

Stir, bring to a boil, cover, turn down the heat, and simmer the mixture for 10–15 minutes until the rice is almost cooked but still has a little bite to it. If you need to, add water to get the rice to this stage, a little at a time. The mixture should be juicy but not too wet to use for stuffing. If the mixture is too wet when the rice is almost done, drain off as much of the liquid as you can, saving it, and then take the lid off and let the rest of the liquid cook off.

Vegetable Stuffing

Put the currants and raisins in a small bowl, cover with hot water, let them soak for at least an hour, or up to 4 hours, and then drain them.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the rice, onions, nuts, and salt. Sauté for about five minutes, until the onion softens and turns translucent, and then add the tomato pulp and the currants and raisins, cover the pan, and cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes, until the liquid is almost completely absorbed and the rice is close to being cooked but still a little al dente. Taste for acidity and add the optional sugar, if you like.

If the rice needs more cooking, add a little water at a time and cook until it’s ready. You want the rice to be about ¾ done, because it will continue to cook in the oven. If there’s too much liquid and the rice is ready, then drain off as much liquid as you can, saving it, and then cook the dish for a minute, uncovered, until the remaining liquid cooks off.

Stuffing and baking the vegetables

  1. Preheat the oven to 375.
  2. Stuff each tomato or pepper about ¾ full with the filling and place the vegetable cap back on top of each one.
  3. Pack them tightly, in one layer, into a large pot or baking dish, using the potato wedges to pack them firmly in place.
  4. Pour any leftover tomato liquid or cooking juices into the pan, up to a half inch or so. If there are none, use water.
  5. Bake 30–35 minutes, until the vegetable shells are soft and the caps and edges have begun to brown. Take a cap off and check that the rice is done.

P.S.: I’ve never met a Greek cook that does this, but if my rice isn’t getting cooked after 20 minutes, I cover the pan with aluminum foil and cook it covered until the rice is soft.


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