|When I first moved back to the States, I mistook these dark green zucchini for cucumbers!|
It’s zucchini season again! Zucchini are sometimes dismissed as ‘bland’ but in fact their mild flavor can be put to good use. They make an ideal foil for all sorts of flavors, whether simmered in tomato sauce and marinated with herbs and vinegar or baked alla parmigiana. They also make fine vehicle for a savory stuffing.
Unlike, say artichokes, pepper or tomatoes, zucchini don’t have a natural cavity to hold the stuffing. You need to cut a zucchini in half lengthwise and carve out a hollow in each of the two halves so they look like little ‘canoes’. It’s smooth sailing from there. You can use the bread stuffing from last week’s post on stuffed artichokes, or the tuna-based stuffing we used to stuff peppers last year. But for something more substantial, try a stuffing of ground meats and flavorings, a mixture very much like the one you might use for meatballs or an Italian meatloaf. Then pop it in the oven (with our without tomato sauce) and let it all cook until golden brown.
Ingredients (for 4-6 as an antipasto or light secondo)
4 large zucchini
For the filling:
1 small onion
500g (1 lb) ground beef (or mixed meats, see Notes)
100g (4 oz) grated parmesan cheese
100g (4 oz) bread crumbs (or crumbled, crustless bread, soaked in milk and squeezed dry)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper
Water or white wine
1 Tbs. tomato paste or purée (optional)
Cut both ends off the zucchini, then split them in half lengthwise. Using a small measuring spoon or teaspoon, carve out a hollow in each zucchini half so they look like little ‘canoes’. (In Italian they call the barchette or ‘little boats’, but to me canoe is more like it.) Chop the pulp and reserve.
Place the zucchini canoes in a steamer, sprinkle with salt, and steam them until they are crisp-tender.
While the zucchini are steaming, sauté the onion in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add the reserved zucchini pulp and a pinch of salt and pepper. Let the zucchini pulp cook for a few minutes to absorb the flavors of the oil and onion and lose its excess liquid. Allow this mixture to cool.
Mix the zucchini mixture with the rest of the stuffing ingredients in a large bowl until you have a homogenous mixture. Taste the mixture and adjust for seasoning; it should be very tasty.
When the zucchini are done, remove them from the steamer and let them cool upside so they can drain, on a rack or kitchen towel.
When the zucchini are cool, stuff their cavities and lay them out snugly in a baking dish. Pour over a glassful of water or white wine (mixed with the tomato paste, if using). Drizzle with olive oil. (You can make the recipe ahead up to this point.)
Bake the zucchini in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) for about 20 minutes or so, until the stuffing is cooked through and the tops nicely browned. (You can test doneness with a paring knife or skewer, if the stuffing has a firm texture and the knife or skewer comes out clean, it’s done.)
Let the zucchini cool, at least a bit, before serving. They are fine warm or at room temperature, but not scalding hot.
NOTES: I almost always look for the smallest zuccchini I can find in the store, but for this dish you need rather larger zucchini, with enough girth to make a proper receptacle for the stuffing. If you grown your own zucchini, this is a good way to use the fruit that you let get a bit too big (which can happen over night). Personally, I much prefer zucchini with spottled skin over the dark green kind, but they can be hard to find. In any event, it’s a personal preference. Not sure it has any effect on the flavor. What is important is freshness; the zucchini should be quite firm, and its skin smooth to the touch.
Zucchini are delicate vegetables. I like steaming the zucchini rather than boiling, which can make them soggy. But don’t sweat it too much; if you boil them, just be sure to drain them well. Either way, check them early and often for doneness, as a hollowed out zucchini cook very quickly.
The traditional meat for this stuffing is beef, but I often use a mixture of beef, pork and veal, which I find both lighter and tastier. And an all pork or all veal stuffing are both fine as well.
Ada Boni has an interesting variation that she calls alla romana: instead of pre-cooking the zucchini, they are stuffed raw and baked with a loose tomato sauce, enough to nearly cover them. You then cover the dish with foil before baking them in the oven for a good hour. Sounds very nice as well…
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