It’s every gardener’s secret September shame: Those zucchini plants you’ve been nursing along all summer suddenly have gone ballistic. Maybe you went away on vacation for a week. Maybe you merely turned your head for a moment. But what once was a promising little squash fingerling suddenly seems as big as your arm.
The conventional wisdom is that the only use for zucchini this big is compost, preferably added in the dead of night so that none of your neighbors can see how you’ve failed.
As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Just stuff them.
Although these big zucchini may no longer be good for cooking by themselves (the marrow is too watery), with a little preparation they make ideal cases for all kinds of fillings. And there are few things more flexible and more delicious than baked stuffed squash.
Stuff them with whatever you have on hand. Bake them with a sauce or not. Serve them hot or at room temperature. Just take a minimum of care and they’re going to be good. Stuffed zucchini is kitchen economy at its best: Nothing goes to waste, and a little bit of this and that only makes it better.
The best zucchini for stuffing are those just on the cusp of monster-dom: 3/4 to 1 pound. Cut them in half lengthwise. A melon baller is the best tool for hollowing out the center. Start with the biggest spoon, and scoop out little balls just as you would for a honeydew salad. Then switch to the smaller spoon and smooth out the sides. You’ll end up with something that looks kind of like a canoe. Don’t trim too much or the squash will collapse during baking. Leave about 1/4 inch along the sides and a little more than that along the bottom.
If you’ve got really big zucchini, cut them into roughly 3-inch sections and then hollow them into cups. If for some reason you’ve decided you’re going to stuff smaller zucchini ( petits farcis, anyone?), just shave a bit along one side and use that as the starting point.
Don’t throw out the cores. Dry them out by chopping them coarsely, then sauteing them until they cook down and lose their moisture. That’s the base for the filling. You can add bits of whatever you have on hand for flavoring: ground lamb, Italian sausage, sauteed peppers, cooked rice or grains, cheese, herbs -- stuffed zucchini is almost endlessly adaptable.
Bind the mixture with beaten eggs if you’d like. Or not. If you do, you’ll probably want to add extra grated cheese and some fresh bread crumbs to absorb any extra moisture.
Some cooks prefer to stuff the zucchini raw and cook everything through during the baking. I like the texture and flavor a little better when I steam the zucchini until it’s almost done, then stuff and bake for a briefer time.
Whichever way you go, you’ll want a little moisture in the baking dish, if only to prevent the zucchini bottom from scorching. A tomato sauce is always a good idea, preferably one spiked with capers or olives or something else to give it a little pop. Or you can go with a simple light broth or even water.
As far as serving goes, you can pretty much play that as you like as well (are you sensing a theme here?). Stuffed zucchini is superb straight out of the oven, but it’s just as good lukewarm. Bake them in advance and refrigerate, then just let them come to room temperature before serving.
Stuffed vegetables are easy that way. In fact, probably the sagest advice of all comes from the great Richard Olney, who wrote in “Simple French Food”: “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.”
Cook farro in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and cool.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 5-quart gratin dish with olive oil.
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and use a melon baller or serrated spoon to remove the insides of the zucchini to make what looks like a canoe. If using a melon baller, use the large scoop to remove most of the pulp in balls and then the small scoop to smooth the sides. Leave about one-quarter inch of the flesh at the sides and a little more at the bottom. Collect the pulp on a cutting board and chop coarsely.
Season the inside of the zucchini boats lightly with salt and steam over rapidly boiling water until almost tender, about 5 minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet and add the onion. Cook until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add the red bell pepper and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped zucchini pulp and basil and cook until dry, about 10 minutes.
Increase the heat to high. Add the mushrooms and cook until soft, 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until dry. Set aside to cool.
Stir the cooked farro, pine nuts and feta into the cooled vegetable mixture. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and spoon the mixture into the hollowed-out zucchinis, mounding on top. It will take 4 to 6 tablespoons per zucchini half.
Arrange the stuffed zucchini in the gratin dish; they may fit quite tightly. Sprinkle the tops with more crumbled feta. Pour the water into the baking dish so it just covers the bottom. Bake until the tops have browned, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Drizzle the top of each zucchini with a little more olive oil, transfer to a serving platter and scatter over more slivered basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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