Monday, September 9, 2013

Roasted Stuffed Zucchini

During the summer months I love to teach produce-driven classes—particularly during  the height of market season when the sheer abundance can be a bit overwhelming.  People are always looking for ways to use up the seasonal glut of eggplant, summer squash, peppers and tomatoes.  One of my favorite classes, The Bounty of Late Summer, is filled with recipes that do just that.  I have already posted two of the recipes from that class: Mediterranean Eggplant &Barley Salad and Bruschetta with Marinated Roasted Sweet Peppers.  Today, I wanted to share another:  Roasted Stuffed Zucchini.  If you have never prepared a stuffed vegetable before, this one is a great place to start.  It is a simple, relatively quick to prepare and super-tasty.  It is always a class favorite...eliciting such comments as "I had no idea zucchini could taste so good."

Stuffed vegetables can be filled with just about anything: vegetables, meats, cheeses, herbs & spices, breadcrumbs or a cooked grain.  I imagine they were originally conceived of as a way to use up odds and ends and leftovers.  And they can still be used for this long as you make sure your leftovers aren't old and tired.  If the ingredients you choose to use (whether leftovers or not) are fresh and flavorful...and you follow a few simple guidelines...your results should be delicious. 

The first thing to consider is that stuffed vegetables are best when all of the filling ingredients are cooked ahead.  This will insure that any vegetables or meats that are included aren't releasing a lot of water (which will make the resulting vegetable soggy and water down the flavors) or a lot of grease (which would make the result...greasy) while they bake.  Uncooked fillings also tend to shrink in volume (due to loss of water and fat)—making the final stuffed vegetable look less than stuffed. 

The vegetable shell should be cooked ahead also.  Doing so will guarantee that the shell is soft and tender when the filling is hot through.  It is disconcerting to cut through a nice soft filling and run into a crunchy or al dente shell.  This isn't so much of a problem with summer squash since they cook fairly quickly, but it can still happen.  Why not be sure everything is cooked to tenderness?  It is an easy thing to blanch the shells briefly in boiling, salted water....or even toss them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them until they are just tender.  

Halved zucchini...ready to be hollowed out

Hollowed zucchini halves

Coarsely chopped zucchini be cooked and used in the filling

The blanched shells...cooling in an ice bath.
A nice by-product of cooking the shell and the filling ahead is that the final baking process is only about heating the vegetables through and giving them a nice gratinéed surface.  The stuffed vegetables can be completely prepared (up to the point of roasting) ahead of time, making them ideal for entertaining.  Simply make them the day before (or early in the day) and refrigerate them.  Bring to room temperature and bake when ready to serve. 

Ready for the oven.  The stuffed zucchini can be prepared to this point ahead.
As I mentioned at the start, the recipe I'm sharing today is simple....there are no meats or cooked grains in the filling, for spices and only one herb.  Because it is simple, a quick examination of the things that are included is illustrative of the essentials of a good stuffing:  Besides zucchini (a logical component), the filling begins with onions and garlic.  Both of these add depth of flavor and sweetness.  They are almost always a good idea.  Garlic is particularly fine with zucchini.  The tomato (and lemon zest) add acidity and are a nice balance for the zucchini.  Without these, the filling might taste a bit flat...which a squeeze of lemon juice or the presence of a cheese with a bit more tang (like Feta...or goat cheese) might correct.  In general, cheese is a nice addition... it adds great flavor, but beyond that, it acts as a binder.  The nuttiness of the Gruyère is good with the zucchini, but other cheeses...Parmesan, Pecorino, Emmenthal—or the aforementioned feta and goat cheese...would all be appropriate (I happened to use Dubliner in the zucchinis's what I had in the house).  Like the cheese, the breadcrumbs act as a binder.  In fact, the breadcrumbs...or in lieu of them, a cooked grain of some kind...are essential to the success of the stuffing.   Both of these items add bulk, lightness, body and at the same time help to absorb any remaining juices that might be released during the final bake.  Finally, the recipe directs you to lay the filling into the shells with a light hand...not packing it down and mounding it slightly.  Squeezing or packing will produce a heavy, stodgy stuffed vegetable.  These zucchini are surprisingly light.  The finishing touch is a sprinkling of dried breadcrumbs which adds a nice light crunch...a few minced nuts would do the same (walnuts would be delicious with the zucchini).  The final drizzle of olive oil is important too...adding moisture and flavor.   

I hope you will give these stuffed zucchini a try.  I think you will find they are a first course with a small fluff of greens or a light accompaniment to a simply prepared piece of meat or fish. 

Roasted Stuffed Zucchini


4 medium zucchini (about 5 oz. each)

2 to 4 T. olive oil

1 small onion (4 to 5 oz.), finely diced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 large vine ripe tomato or 2 Roma tomatoes (about 6 oz. total weight), peeled, seeded and diced with juices reserved
1/2 cup soft breadcrumbs
2 oz. Gruyère cheese, finely grated
zest of 1 lemon
1 T. picked thyme, minced
1/4 c. dry breadcrumbs

Ingredients for 1/2 a recipe ... to serve 2.

Trim the ends of the zucchini and split lengthwise.  Using a melon baller, scoop out the flesh of each zucchini half, leaving the walls of the zucchini about 1/4  inch thick.  Chop and reserve the insides.

Blanch the zucchini halves in boiling salted water until just soft and flexible—about 6 to 8 minutes.  Refresh in cold water.  Set cut side down on paper towels to drain.  If you prefer, you may cook them for a couple of minutes less and skip the refreshing process.  Simply transfer to towels to cool and steam dry.

Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan.  Add the onion and stew over medium heat until soft (if the pan seems dry, add more oil).  Add the reserved zucchini insides, the garlic and a pinch of salt.  When the zucchini begins to release its liquid, increase the heat and continue to cook until nearly dry.  

Add the tomato along with the reserved juices and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomato liquid has evaporated.  

Scrape the mixture into a mixing bowl and let cool briefly.  Add the soft breadcrumbs, cheese, lemon zest and thyme and mix well.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

Arrange the shells in an oiled baking dish just large enough to hold the zucchini in a snug single layer.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  Divide the filling among the zucchini halves, spreading and forming it with your fingers.  Do not pack it down; it should be slightly mounded. 


Sprinkle the dried breadcrumbs over the stuffed zucchini and drizzle with more olive oil.  The zucchini may be prepared to this point earlier in the day and chilled.  Bring to room temperature before proceeding.  Bake in a preheated 375° to 400° oven until the zucchini is very tender, the filling is bubbling, and the tops are lightly browned—about 25 to 35 minutes.  Serve hot or at room temperature with a salad or as an accompaniment to grilled meats or fish.  Serves 4.

(Recipe adapted from the Victory Garden)


Katrina said...

Mmmm! I have some yellow squash I need to do this with--and some already cooked quinoa....I'm seeing tomorrow lunch here.

Paige said...

Sounds like a perfect use for your cooked quinoa! But I'm guessing you'll leave the onions out? ;)