Every summer there comes a time when it’s not enough to slice a tomato or saute a zucchini or grill an eggplant. With almost everything but corn on the cob, simple gets boring. You start to want a little more from every vegetable hauled home from the farmers market.
At that point, I can give a two-word suggestion: Stuff it.
Baking a tomato with a savory filling, or steaming a squash with a custardy center, is a great way to amplify the flavor, transform the texture and turn a side dish into more of a centerpiece. It’s like summer squared.
Unlike the stuffed vegetables of winter, those bleak and stodgy peppers and cabbage that haunt my childhood memories, the summer varieties are lighter, livelier and a lot less complicated. Like frittatas, they are endlessly adaptable: You can clean out the refrigerator to fill them or start fresh. Even better, you can serve them hot or cold (or, ideally, bake them in the coolness of evening and eat them in the heat of the next day).
Americans tend to write off stuffed vegetables as relics of the ‘50s, when underemployed housewives cooked up over-contrived concoctions to torment their kids. But more sophisticated cuisines always have served stuffed vegetables proudly and still do. I once paid $30 in a Paris restaurant for a plate of the classic Provencal stuffed vegetables -- zucchini, tomato and eggplant bulging with juicy meat -- and came away with new respect for the whole concept.
Stuffed by any other name just sounds more lyrical, though. In French, it’s farci, and it translates to an art form with zucchini flowers and onions as well as tomatoes and zucchini. In Italian, it’s ripieno, a staple of antipasto tables. And in Spanish, it’s relleno, and you can almost taste the chile as you say it -- and reach for mushrooms instead.
I borrow from all those interpretations in mid- to late summer. The traditional Provencal tomatoes are adapted easily using spicy sausage along with the usual onion and bread crumbs. I cut some corners on the time-honored recipe but keep the trick of baking the tomatoes with their sliced caps laid back on. There’s no more gorgeous presentation, plus the tomato flavor migrates top down as well as bottom up.
When I have leftover grilled tuna, I’ll chop it to stuff into ripe tomatoes with basil and nicoise olives and maybe anchovies, an idea borrowed from a quirky cookbook called “The Wonderful Food of Provence” by Jean-Noel Escudier and Peta J. Fuller (Perennial Library). Baked, the tomatoes taste like the essence of Nice, except there the tuna would be canned.
Stuffed vegetables are considered poor people’s food in Italy, where inexpensive ingredients so often produce rich results. In Sicily, some of the best dishes are just artichokes, zucchini or tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic and cheese. I borrow from that concept for eggplant and tweak it using Spanish ingredients, particularly manchego cheese and piquillo peppers. The same filling is also good for portabellos.
Relleno does not have to be an adjective only for chiles. Zucchini can be stuffed with corn kernels and asadero cheese and roasted to serve with salsa. And, I have to confess, I have hung onto a recipe clipped from a women’s magazine 20-some years ago to make tomatoes relleno: baked with an oozy filling of sour cream, green chiles and Monterey Jack. I’ve even served it to company with no apologies.
Prepping vegetables to stuff is almost as easy as dicing them. With tomatoes, you need to scrape out the seeds first, but reserve the pulp and drain it well before adding it to the other stuffing ingredients. With most squash, you can use the pulp or just pitch it, depending on the recipe (sometimes it adds nothing but wateriness). With eggplant, the pulp is the whole point.
Every summer, I get a little quicker at stuffed squash. I used to think vegetables -- except tomatoes -- should be parboiled or baked before stuffing. Now I realize you can skip a step if you proceed straight to the stuffing, but cover the baking dish tightly for half the cooking time, then uncover it to let the vegetables finish baking until they turn tender and the filling is set.
Essentially, that’s steaming, and it works even more effectively on the stove top.
A recipe for sunburst squash filled with spinach and Gruyere that I developed years ago required two steps just to get to the filling and baking. This year, I realized I could skip one by parboiling the shell empty, then steaming it filled, and never have to switch on the oven.
The easiest stuffed vegetables I have ever made involved slicing a zucchini into two-inch chunks, hollowing out each to make a little shell and packing them all with spicy sausage. Those are then steamed until the meat cooks, a matter of minutes. What results is an excellent light lunch but even better finger food, like Chinese dumplings without the wrapper.
At the other end of the decadence scale is the technique outlined in Richard Olney’s classic “Lulu’s Provencal Table”: Zucchini shells to be stuffed are first deep-fried in olive oil until they are lightly colored but still al dente. The flavor and texture are certainly amplified, but it sounds like work even before the stuffing is added.
But in the end, it’s easy to see where the idea originated. With vegetables in midsummer, it’s hard to leave good enough alone.