How to Stuff a Wild Zucchini

Some dishes are Rolls-Royces, rich and elegant. Some dishes are Maseratis, lean and fast and begging for trouble. Stuffed zucchini is a Dodge Dart.

Relentlessly unfashionable yet undeniably useful, stuffed zucchini is a dish that gets no respect from anyone except those with too many squash on their hands. But at this time of year, who doesn't fit that description?

On vacation in Italy this summer, I ate at a farmhouse restaurant the first night after the owner's August break. The appetizer? Stuffed zucchini. (Granted, these were distinctly post-modern stuffed zucchini: paper-thin slices from what must have been a real monster, steamed and stuffed with goat cheese like a ravioli, then gratineed with a little pecorino.)

My first thought was this: "Where did they find zucchini this big?" Then I remembered all those summers I'd come back from a week or two away to be greeted by a garden bountiful with what looked like green baseball bats. I guess it happens in Italy too.

When it does, your options are limited. You can stick them in brown paper bags and sneak them onto your neighbor's porch. You can try to peddle them as the latest in self-defense technology. Or you can stuff 'em.

What do you stuff them with? Well, what have you got? Stuffed vegetables are endlessly flexible and endlessly forgiving.

No matter what the filling, you wind up with something that not only tastes good but is comforting in a way that is unique to home cooking. It gives you the satisfaction of having fed people--and fed them well--on little more than rejects and leftovers.

Richard Olney, intimately familiar with making something from nothing, pretty well sums it up in "Simple French Food" (Atheneum, 1974):

"Recipes for stuffed vegetables should not be taken too seriously--at least insofar as the ingredients for the fillings are concerned; vegetables may be stuffed with practically anything, and, if a bit of common sense is brought to the composition, they cannot help being good.

"Leftover roast, boiled or stewed meats or poultry often find their way, chopped, into these stuffings. Stock meats, although most of their goodness has been drained from them, may be ground or finely chopped--revivified by a larger than usual dose of herbs and a pinch of cayenne, they always provide an absolutely respectable base.

"Something alliaceous always gives a spark of life; soaked, squeezed bread, precooked rice, leftover mashed potatoes or chopped leftover pasta will lend lightness and consistency; egg is for binding and cheese both for sapid relief and textural coherence."

A little meat, a little cheese, some rice or bread to stretch it out, certainly a little flesh from the vegetable that's being stuffed, perhaps some egg to bind it. Season it as you like--using common sense, of course.

It's the culinary equivalent of pulling something out of thin air, of spinning gold from straw. After all, anyone can take perfect ingredients and turn them into dinner. That's no trick. The magic is making a Dodge Dart of a dish delicious.

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STUFFED ZUCCHINI

3 large zucchini (about 8 inches long, 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter)

Salt

1 1/2 pounds plum tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

1 pound ground pork

2 sprigs thyme

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Black pepper

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup cubed stale bread soaked in 1/2 cup milk

1 egg

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese

Trim ends of zucchini and cut into sections roughly 2 1/2 inches long. Soak in cold, lightly salted water 30 minutes.

Cut shallow "X" in bottom of each tomato and cook in rapidly boiling water just until peel begins to come free, about 30 seconds. Drain and rinse briefly under cold running water. Set aside to cool.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in large skillet or Dutch oven. When hot, add pork and stir to break up. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pork is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add thyme, red pepper, fennel seeds and black pepper to taste and remove to bowl to cool.

While pork cooks, use small sharp knife or melon baller to make zucchini "cups." Remove center of each zucchini section, leaving only about 1/4 inch around sides and bottom. Stand zucchini "cups" upside down on platter to drain and chop and reserve flesh you've removed.

Drain most of fat from pan, but leave any browned bits that stick to bottom. Add 1/2 chopped onion and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add 1 clove minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add about 1/2 of chopped zucchini flesh and cook until zucchini turns light golden, about 5 minutes. Add cooling cooked pork to zucchini mixture (discard remaining chopped zucchini or save for another use). Do not wash pan.

Squeeze bread dry and add to pork mixture along with 3/4 teaspoon salt. Mix thoroughly, squeezing mixture between fingers to break up bread and bind mixture together. Taste and correct seasoning. Beat in egg.

Lightly salt interior of zucchini cups and spoon in meat mixture. Pack as tightly as possible and mound a little on top. Smooth with spoon.

In same pan used to cook meat, cook remaining 1/2 onion until translucent over medium heat, adding bit of oil only if needed. Add remaining minced garlic and cook until fragrant.

While onion cooks, cut tomatoes in half and squeeze out seeds. Chop tomatoes coarsely and add to onion along with tomato paste. Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and scraping browned bits from bottom and side of pan, until tomatoes begin to soften and bubble, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Arrange zucchini cups meat side up in bottom of roasting pan. Cover tightly and bake at 350 degrees until zucchini can be pierced easily with toothpick, about 45 minutes. Remove lid, scatter cheese over top, increase heat to 450 degrees and bake until cheese melts and begins to brown, about 10 minutes.

Remove from oven. If tomato sauce is too liquid, remove zucchini cups to warm platter and reduce sauce over high heat until thick, about 5 minutes at most. Spoon sauce around cups on platter and serve.

6 servings. Each serving contains:

240 calories; 340 mg sodium; 81 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 1.22 grams fiber.

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