Bursting with fresh and juicy ingredients and exuding appetising aromas, gemista (or yemista) is one of Greece’s favourite traditional styles of cooking.
Gemista means ‘filled/stuffed with’ and can refer to tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplants, zucchini, capsicums, vine and cabbage leaves or even seafood such as calamari.
In ancient Greece, there was a long tradition of stuffing quinces with meats. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a Roman emperor, fell in love with Athenian cuisine and introduced famous wine feasts featuring sweet fruit stuffed with meat to his court. Since then a rich meal in Greece is called ‘loukoulio gevma’.
The Greeks evolved the original recipe of stuffed quinces during the Ottoman occupation. Lacking fruit and basic vegetables they started to use vine and cabbage leaves, rolling them around rice or meat, transforming them into dolmas. The Ottomans also adopted these recipes around the 15th century.
For modern Greeks, gemista is a classic summer dish that is either baked or boiled in a large pot, featuring seasonal produce. There are hundreds of different recipes for gemista, as every rural household used to use what grew in their backyard. Islanders took the idea one step further, stuffing large calamari with the same filling.
Greece’s stuffed food culture has been praised by supporters of the Mediterranean diet worldwide, as it falls under the category of ladera (foods prepared with olive oil). So make sure to use some good quality extra virgin olive oil, which will surely lift the flavour!
What makes gemista so special is that it features protein, fibre, unsaturated oils and good carbs all in one. It’s high in nutritional value and can even be eaten as a salad.
When the vegetables are in season, the different ingredients help give the food an extra flavour boost as the rice absorbs the juices and spices.
The stuffed seafood and vegetable options can work well for pescetarians, vegetarians and vegans if they choose to exclude the minced beef or pork from the rice and veggie stuffing.
Although several Greek recipes feature the word gemista in their titles, the single word usually refers to a combination of baked stuffed vegetables.
Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and zucchini can equally hero this dish. The gemista are filled with rice and chopped vegetables and baked in a tomato-based herb and spices sauce.
The filling can also contain minced beef or pork, although the vegetarian option is lighter and lasts for more days in the fridge.
4 green peppers
2 eggplants and/or zucchini
5-6 potatoes, cut into wedges
2 red onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
500g rice (for risotto)
1 tin chopped tomatoes
a small bunch of parsley, chopped
a small bunch of fresh mint, chopped
2 tbsps tomato puree
2 tsps sugar
2 tbsps of butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
*250 g beef mince (optional)
1. After you wash everything thoroughly, slice off the top of the tomatoes and using a spoon, remove the flesh of the tomatoes and reserve in a bowl. The flesh of the tomatoes will be the base for the tomato sauce.
2. Slice off the top of the eggplants (do the same if you are using zucchini) and remove the flesh, using a spoon. Cut the flesh of the eggplants into small cubes and set aside, as you will use them later for the filling of the dish.
3. Slice off the top of the peppers and remove the seeds and white parts from the inside.
4. Place the empty vegetables on a large baking tray. Try to leave the vegetables as thin as possible, leaving just a little of the flesh, but be careful not to poke through their skin.
5. Season the empty vegetables with a pinch of salt and sugar and add a little butter on the bottom of each one.
6. In a blender, add the flesh of the tomatoes, 5-6 tbsps olive oil, the tomato puree, sugar, season with salt and pepper and mix to combine. Set aside.
7. In a saucepan, add some olive oil and sauté the onions, until translucent.
* If you prefer going for the meat version try sizzling 250 grams of ground beef with the onions in the step above.
8. Chop the zucchini into small cubes, add in the saucepan and sauté for one more minute, before adding the flesh of the chopped eggplants and garlic and sauté until softened.
9. Add the rice and continue simmering unit it becomes translucent.
10. Pour in tin of chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
11. As soon as the juices reduce stir in the fresh herbs.
12. Spoon the filling inside the empty vegetables and place the potatoes, cut into pieces, in between the vegetables.
13. Season with salt and pepper and pour the tomato sauce over the vegetables and in the baking tray.
14. Cover the vegetables with their lids and add one or two glasses of warm water.
13. Cover the tray with some foil and bake in preheated oven at 180 degrees for a little more than an hour.
Halfway through cooking time, remove the aluminium foil and bake until the tops become golden brown.
After you fill the vegetables try putting some cream cheese or feta on top of the rice before you place the lids back on. It will add a spicier twist and prevent the rice from getting burnt.