Many places have some form of tomatoes stuffed with rice, and these pomodori ripieni di riso are a delicious, simple version. You don't need too many ingredients, as this dish is all about letting the tomatoes shine, and they make a great side or main dish.
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We don't always grow vegetables as our area to grow them is not really the best light-wise. But if we do, we always have some tomatoes which we love enjoying as summer progresses. And even if we don't, they are something I look forward to from the farmers market.
While you get get tomatoes any time of year these days, I still think you can tell the difference when it's tomato season locally. Those bright, flavorful tomatoes are so much better, and I for one want them in everything. In a simple salad, on sandwiches and other dishes are great, but roasting also brings out their flavor even more.
Where is pomodori ripieni di riso from?
Rice stuffed tomatoes are not uniquely an Italian dish - gemista is a Greek dish that is various stuffed vegetables, including tomatoes. Those, too, include rice, but they typically also include meat and/or other vegetables. Other cultures, particularly around the Mediterranean, have other similar dishes, too, again usually filled with a few ingredients.
This Italian dish is from the Rome area and is a really simple form of stuffed tomato recipe. The stuffing is nothing more than rice, the tomato pulp and olive oil. You usually add some simple seasonings like fresh basil, parsley or oregano (or a mix of them), then most also add some garlic.
Traditionally (in Rome at least), you add some potatoes around the tomatoes that both take in some flavor and help hold the tomatoes upright. But that's it.
Occasionally you will find versions that include some cheese like pecorino or additions like capers or olives, but this is less typical, and arguably changes the flavors. The more classic version is all about simple, summery ingredients, though it's also a comfort food.
In Rome, this dish is a summer tradition. You will find them sold ready-prepared in rotisserie shops and other food vendors, and many people buy them as a way too enjoy delicious food without cooking during those baking hot days in August. Often, you serve these at room temperature, but they work warm as well.
What kind of rice should you use?
Most traditionally, you use arborio or other similar rice for this. However, other white or even brown rice would work, too. However the choice of rice is partly driven with how you choose to make it. Some types of rice cook quicker than others, and some need more liquid than others.
Personally, arborio rice or other rice used for risotto like carnaroli would be my preference since they are more traditional and have that slight starchiness. Then if those are not available, a short or medium grain white rice.
Longer grained rice, unless par-cooked, is more likely to expand a lot more and burst the tomatoes. Brown rice takes a lot longer to cook so you definitely need to be par-cook it, if you decided to use.
Which all leads me into the debate on how to prepare the rice.
Should you pre-cook the rice or add it raw?
Some recipes have you add the rice raw, while others suggest parboiling. I have tried both ways and I think in many ways, it's a matter of choice. Some in our family prefer par-boiled, others prefer starting from raw. Both have their pluses and minuses as I will explain.
Pros and cons of starting with raw rice
Using raw rice means the rice will need to expand more and you need it to cook a little longer to ensure the rice is cooked through. The upside is this ties in pretty well with how long the potatoes take to cook, I found. You also simply prep everything then it's one cook.
The downside is you need to check to make sure the rice is cooked and it can taste a little chalky. I didn't really find that but it did definitely have a little more 'bite' which I quite liked, but some may not.
Also you may find your tomatoes burst open towards the end of cooking, though I found even though the skins burst in places, they stayed together. As long as you don't overfill the tomatoes and they are relatively firm to start, it should work out fine.
One other thing about this method is the herbs tend to float on top of the liquid so are more on top of the rice rather than mixed through. It's not a huge issue, but just something to consider.
Tips for starting with raw rice - make sure you divide both the rice and the liquid evenly between the tomatoes. You don't want one filled all with rice and another all with tomato liquid as they won't cook evenly.
Be really careful not to overfill the tomatoes to help avoid them bursting open. Check the rice towards the end to make sure it is cooked. If it's dry, you can add a little more liquid.
Pros and cons of par-boiling the rice
Par-boiling the rice means the rice is partly cooked before you add it into the tomatoes. This means it has both partly expanded and has only a little time left needed to cook inside the tomatoes.
As a result, they need less time in the oven, and so between that and the fact they don't need to expand as much, the tomatoes are less likely to burst. It's pretty much impossible to undercook the rice this way, or for it to be chalky. Instead, it's that bit fluffier, and the herbs are mixed through.
The downside is it's an extra cooking step and the timing doesn't line up with the potatoes any more. So you will need to partly cook the potatoes before adding the tomatoes to the dish to ensure they are properly cooked. For some the rice may seem fluffy this way, but to others it may feel like it is overcooked. It really depends on your taste.
Tips for par-boiling the rice - start roasting the potatoes as you are par-cooking the rice and the timing should work out relatively aligned. When cooking the rice, start by softening the garlic to bring out it's sweetness, but take care to only do briefly so it doesn't burn.
If you par-cook the rice in the strained tomato pulp it takes on the tomato flavor pretty well. Then mix in the herbs towards the end. I added a little extra liquid to each tomato before roasting, but I would suggest only a little to minimize it seeming over-cooked.
As you can see, both methods have things for and against them, so a lot if up to how you tend to like rice or how it might align for you timing-wise.
Additional tips for making rice stuffed tomatoes
While I've given a number of suggestions for the two methods above, there are a few other things that are worth mentioning about making this dish in general to help it work out well. Though don't worry, it's really pretty easy and mainly about letting them cook!
- Choose relatively large, firm but ripe tomatoes such as beefsteak or vine ripened.
- Cut the tops off the tomatoes relatively wide and slightly angled in. This lets you remove the core and also have space to scoop out the inside. Don't throw the tops away - you will use them during baking.
- Use a spoon to scoop out the inside of the tomatoes. This helps to avoid you accidentally piercing through. Just take out the seeds and the pulp that joins into the middle so the sides are relatively smooth. You don't want to scrape the sides any thinner or they won't hold up when baked.
- Drain the hollowed tomatoes upside down while the rice is soaking (to work from raw) or while par-cooking the rice.
- Toss the potatoes in oil in the baking dish. This helps give a little layer of oil under the tomatoes as well so they don't stick.
- Use more or less potatoes to taste, but a few are certainly helpful to help the tomatoes stand up (plus they are tasty, too!)
- Divide the rice mixture evenly between the tomatoes and don't press it down. Both help to avoid them bursting open and for the rice to cook evenly. Then, drizzle a little extra oil over the top both to add flavor and add a little extra moisture.
These Italian tomatoes stuffed with rice are a simple combination that's a delicious taste of late summer. They work well as a side dish to a range of mains, or you can enjoy them as a meal in themselves. Warm or room temperature, they have all the flavors of a good roast tomato soup with the comfort factor of risotto. Well worth the wait as you enjoy their wonderful cooking smells.
Try these other dishes with rice:
- Spanakorizo (Greek spinach rice, easy and great both as a side or main)
- Nam khao (Lao crispy rice salad - takes a little extra step of cooking rice then frying balls of rice, but still easy and full of great flavor)
- Lebanese chicken and rice (a delicious mix of rice with seasoned with warm spices and meat, topped with chicken and toasted nuts)
- And get more Italian recipes and side dishes in the archives.
Tomatoes stuffed with rice
- 4 tomatoes large (see notes)
- 1 clove garlic
- ½ tablespoon fresh parsley (optional)
- 6 basil leaves approx
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon salt plus a little more for in tomatoes
- ½ teaspoon pepper approximately
- 3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoon arborio rice or other risotto rice
- ¾ lb potatoes
- Carefully cut the tops from the tomatoes in a relatively wide circle, keeping the top in one piece and slightly angled in so that you remove the tough core at the same time, as far as possible. Set the tops to one side.
- Using a spoon, scoop out the inside of the tomatoes, taking care not to pierce through the skin of the tomatoes. Save the scooped out pulp. Don't make the outer flesh thinner, just scoop the seeds and the part that joins in so it is smooth around the inside. Lightly salt the inside of the tomatoes then turn them upside down on kitchen paper to drain.
- If you have a food mill, you can use that to puree the tomato pulp, otherwise use a food processor to blend it up then press through a fine strainer/sieve to remove the seeds. Set aside.
- Crush the garlic, finely chop the parsley and chop or tear the basil.
If adding rice raw
- Add the garlic, parsley, basil, oregano, salt and pepper to the strained tomato pulp and add the rice, as well as 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Leave the mixture to soak in the fridge for around an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Chop the potatoes into small-ish wedges or dice. Toss the potatoes with around 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes in one layer along with the tomatoes in between them.
- Place the empty tomatoes in between the potato pieces so that there are potatoes all around them (they help the tomatoes to stay upright as they cook).
- Divide the rice and tomato pulp mixture evenly between the tomatoes, making sure you get even amounts of rice, liquid and herbs in each one (I tend to scoop out the rice first and divide it, then top each up with the liquid). Don't press the mixture down but ensure it is loose and so has room to expand.
- Add the tomato tops on top of each tomato - great if they match up but it's fine if they don't. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top of the tomatoes then place the dish in the oven and allow to bake for around 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the rice has cooked through.
- Allow to cool slightly before serving hot, or let cool to room temperature to serve cool.
If par-cooking the rice
- Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Chop the potatoes into small-ish wedges or dice. Toss the potatoes with around 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes in one layer along with the tomatoes in between them. Once the oven has heated, add the dish with the potatoes so they start cooking as you par-cook the rice.
- Warm another 1 tablespoon in a skillet/frying pan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring regularly, for a minute or two until it is fragrant but not browning. Add the rice and stir to coat with the oil and garlic. Cook a minute then add around ¾ cup (360ml) of the tomato pulp. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat and cook, stirring now and then, for around 10 minutes.
- Add the parsley, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix through so well distributed and cook a minute or two longer. If needed, add a little more of the tomato pulp - it should seem slightly wet but not soup-y. Once the rice is just about cooked (so it seems about cooked but with a little bite), remove from the heat.
- Remove the dish with the potatoes from the oven, and carefully add the tomatoes, open side up, between the potatoes so that you have potatoes all around and in between the tomatoes. Fill each tomato with the rice mixture, splitting it evenly between the tomatoes. Don't press the mixture down but leave it loose. You can add a drizzle more tomato pulp on top of the rice, but you won't need much, if any.
- Add the tomato tops on top of each tomato - if they match up, great, but it's fine if they don't. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top of the tomatoes then return the dish to the oven and allow to bake for around 40 - 50 minutes, until the rice has cooked through, the potatoes are gently brown and the tomatoes soft.