And so, upstairs, downstairs, and all over town, cooks stuff their overgrown vegetables. Hopefully, the results elicit this response: “This is good!” said G to my complete surprise. He usually views my vegetarian improvisations with great suspicion.
A zucchini as large as a baseball bat might be beyond redemption, but it’s still worth cutting in half lengthwise and taking an experimental taste. If it’s not bitter, woody, or mushy, then invite some friends over for an impromptu supper of stuffed zucchini, salad, and bread.Cook with what’s on hand–which hopefully includes garlic, an onion or shallots, and some herbs, fresh or dried. Below, I’ll describe what I did, and then you make up your own variation and let me know how it goes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and use a melon baller to remove the flesh. Be sure to leave a shell about 1/2 inch thick on the sides and bottom. Lightly dust the zucchini shells with salt and turn them over on paper towels or a kitchen towel. Roughly chop the flesh and set aside.
Maybe you have some leftover rice, barley, bulghur, or quinoa from another meal. If not, look for the quickest cooking grain you have on hand. For me, that’s whole-wheat couscous. Equal amounts of couscous and boiling water in a bowl, a pinch of salt, cover, forget for 5 minutes. Or longer. Eventually, remember it and run a fork through it to break it up into fluffy grains.
While you have some boiling water going, pour a little over a small handful of raisins in a cup to let them soften and plump up.
While the couscous sits, chop an onion and sauté it in a large skillet with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Press 1 or 2 garlic cloves into the pan, and turn the heat down so nothing burns. Add the chopped zucchini, stir well, and let cook. Tomatoes are still in season, so peel, seed, and chop 1 or 2 and add them to your pan. Cook the tomatoes down a bit. You want to keep your stuffing fairly dry.
And no, you do not need to make peeling a tomato into a big production. You might have a peeler that will dig right into that slippery skin or you can do what my mom used to do with ripe tomatoes: Press the blade of a paring knife against the tomato and rotate it against the blade. This will loosen the skin. Pry up a corner with your knife and pull the skin toward you. If the tomato is ripe, the skin will pull right off. This trick does not often work with unripe or supermarket tomatoes. But it does work with ripe peaches, too.
Chop some herbs—parsley, basil, mint, chives, oregano (whatever you have)—and add them to the pan. Stir them around until they turn bright green and wilt. Or, if you are using dried herbs, make sure they are well mixed in.
Scrape the contents of your pan into the bowl of couscous and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper and a pinch (or two or more) of cayenne, chili flakes, or other chili pepper such as Aleppo (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons of Aleppo in my dish.). Drain the raisins and add them along with a handful of toasted pine nuts. If you have some roasted red peppers around, dice them, and add them, too. Add some crumbled feta, toss everything together well, and taste again for seasoning.
Now, dry your zucchini shells with paper towels or a kitchen towel, pressing as firmly as you can—without breaking the shells!—to remove moisture. Grind some pepper over them and arrange them in a baking dish that fits them well. Spoon the filling into the shells, piling it high if you have too much. (I did. If some of the filling falls into the baking pan, it will just give the cooking liquid more flavor.) Add enough vegetable broth (I used some vegetarian “chicken” broth powder mixed with water.) to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Cover the pan with a lid or aluminum foil and place in the oven. Bake until the filling is hot and the zucchini shell is soft, about 30 minutes. Then serve.
If, as sometimes happens, you overcook your zucchini, do not despair. Just spoon it into bowls. It might not be as pretty as you’d like, but it will taste delicious. Or pour the contents of the baking dish into your food processor or blender and let it rip. You’ll have a thick and creamy zucchini soup.