There is a particular dish that calls to me this time of year. Maybe it’s all the summers I’ve spent in the French countryside, but a stuffed vegetable just says late summer to me, especially a stuffed round zucchini. Courgette farcie, I really love the sound of that. Bring out the olives, the cheese, the simple grilled meats or sausages, and most importantly, the big pitcher of cold, cold rosé. Round up the glasses, circle up the chairs, put the big platter of stuffed roasted vegetables in the center of the table as my French friends do and dig in.
It’s lazy day cooking at it’s best. Take what’s in season, what’s lying about the kitchen, what sounds good and importantly, what’s hidden in the back of the fridge, toss it together and then into the oven early in the day before the summer heat chases you out of the kitchen and the idea of turning on the oven is unbearable. Then eat them when you like, maybe for a late lunch, maybe for dinner, perhaps as a snack. They’re really at their best at room temperature. Hot food and hot atmospheres don’t work for me.
Stuffed vegetables are really pretty easy and incredibly flexible when you break them down into the basic components. They can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. First, you need a vegetable base of some kind (hence the term “stuffed vegetables”.) Something large-ish that can be hollowed out – zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers are the standard options. I really get excited to see the round zucchinis at the farmers market, as they are most definitely my favorite receptacle.
Next you need a stuffing base, a starch of some sort – any rice, grain, even old stale bread can work. Do you want to add some protein in there? You certainly can, but don’t have to though it’s a great place to throw in some leftovers that might be hiding in the back of the fridge.
So now you have your two, maybe three, basic components – vegetable container, filling base and perhaps a little protein. Next up are the additions that can bring some flavor and/or texture to that filling. There are five general categories: flavoring vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, cheese and herbs/spices. Use what you like, use what you have but think about the overall flavor, texture and color. Dried fruit like a diced apricot or some raisins might seem odd at first but think about a Moroccan influenced filling, maybe couscous with a little cumin and cinnamon, studded with bits of dried apricot, toasted pistachios, golden onions and a bit of lamb piled into a juicy tomato baked until it blisters. Sounds good right?
Once I’ve got all these bits figured out, I put the filled vegetables in a baking dish, put their little hats back on and scatter a good handful of cherry tomatoes, a little chicken broth and a few pinches of herbs in the pan to roast alongside. The tomatoes caramelize and pop creating a rather nice sauce/accompaniment to the stuffed vegetable. I suppose you could throw in other things, in fact fennel comes to mind, but I like cherry tomatoes. I like what they do in the oven and my garden is overflowing with them right now. So there’s that.
So to recap, here’s the basic formula:
- Vegetable container of some sort: round zucchini are a favorite but I realize they can be challenging to find (cue the farmer’s market pep talk.) A regular, long zucchini will work too – cut the top ¼ off as the lid and scoop out the innards. Large tomatoes and peppers of various shades are good as well and I’ve used large sweet onions with great success too, though they’re a bit trickier to hollow out in one piece. A melonballer is your best friend.
- Stuffing base: there’s a multitude of options here. Cooked rice of any kind (white, brown, jasmine, basmati, wild), quinoa, couscous, farro, wheat or rye berries, Israeli couscous, bulgur or small pasta like orzo. Even stale bread works, diced into small cubes and lightly toasted first.
- Protein (optional): if you like, add cooked ground meat (beef, turkey, pork, lamb) or minced pieces of cooked meats (chicken, roast pork, beef, bacon, ham, salami or tofu). Whatever leftover meat you have works great – Chinese bbq pork is particularly nice.
- Flavoring vegetables: the classic aromatics to add a nice flavor base – onion, red or green pepper, garlic or celery are the standards. Don’t forget about the innards scooped out of the base vegetable. Discard the seedy portions, finely dice the flesh then saute until most of the liquid evaporates. No waste here, my friends. I’d add citrus in this category too –a squeeze of lemon, lime or orange juice would brighten up the mixture nicely. And don’t forget about fresh diced chilies to pep things up.
- Dried fruit (optional): adds a very nice touch of sweetness to contrast all the savory flavors– add a few Tablespoons of diced apricots, cranberries, raisins, currants, dates, cherries. Unsweetened coconut can be nice too if that seems to fit your flavor profile.
- Nuts (optional): for a nice, crunchy counterpoint add some chopped nuts – almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, peanuts, pumpkin seeds are favorites. Toast first, either in the oven or in a pan on the stovetop.
- Cheese (optional): any firm cheese like parmesan or pecorino is great but so is feta, gruyere and a firmer goat cheese. Cheddar too, though it’s not my favorite. Avoid softer, creamy cheeses, as they tend to turn the filling into mush.
- Herbs/spices: be generous here as a lot of fresh, bright herbs are lovely in terms of both aesthetics and flavor – basil, parsley, dill, tarragon, rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives. If you don’t have fresh herbs, dried work too, particularly the spice mixes like herbs de Provence, an Italian blend or even a good curry powder. Go a bit easier with the dried as they’re much more potent than the fresh. I particularly like using za’atar here, a Middle Eastern spice mix typically containing oregano, sumac, cumin, sesame seeds and black pepper. If you’ve cooked anything from Yotam Ottolenghi in the last several years, you probably have a jar of it languishing in your spice cabinet. It’s delicious – use it.
Mix and match as you like to find your favorite combinations. If you have a glut of zucchini or tomatoes, this is a great way to use them as well as all the little bits of this and that accumulating in your kitchen.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: EXHALE AND PRETEND YOU’RE IN PROVENCE. So first thing in the morning, pop a few of these in the oven, turn on the fan, invite friends over for a late Sunday lunch and get that rosé on ice. You’re having a party.
6 years ago: Gazpacho
5 years ago: The trials and tribulations of community gardening
4 years ago: Raspberry Crème Croustilant
3 years ago: Bastille Day Sunday Lunch – Figgy BBQ Sauce
2 years ago: Bombay Potato Wraps
last year: Welcome Back to Me
STUFFED ROUND ZUCCHINI (OR ANY VEGETABLE REALLY)
Makes 4 medium round zucchini
This is my typical combination but mix and match any way you like based on what you have. Use this recipe as a guide and find your own way.
3 Tablespoons olive oil
½ medium onion, diced
½ red pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, finely diced
1 cup leftover rice (white, brown, basmati, what have you)
2 Tablespoons slivered or chopped almonds, toasted
2 Tablespoons raisins
1/8-¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon za’atar
1 ½ Tablespoons fresh parsley, finely minced
1 ½ Tablespoons fresh dill, finely minced
4 Tablespoons grated parmesan, divided
¾ cup low sodium chicken broth
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes
kosher salt and ground black pepper
- Preheat your oven at 350° Pour 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in the bottom of a baking dish and set aside until needed.
- In a small pan, toast the almonds until golden brown, about 5-6 minutes.
- Heat the remaining 1 Tablespoon of oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and sauté the onion and red pepper until soft and lightly golden brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 minute.
- Turn the sautéed ingredients into a medium bowl and add the rice, almonds, raisins, crushed red pepper flakes, oregano, za’atar, parsley, dill, and a ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper..
- Stir in 2 Tablespoons of the parmesan cheese. Set aside.
- Cut a top off the zucchinis and set aside until needed.
- Scoop the flesh from the interior of the zucchini, taking care not to pierce the outer skin of the zucchini. A melonballer works really well for this.
- Season the inside of each zucchini with salt and pepper.
- Fill the cavity of each zucchini with the rice filling and place in a baking dish.
- Pour 1 Tablespoon or so of the chicken broth over the filling in each zucchini, top with the remaining parmesan cheese and place the lid on top.
- Scatter the cherry tomatoes around the zucchini and pour the remaining chicken stock in the bottom of the pan. Season the tomatoes with a pinch each salt, pepper and za’atar.
- Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the foil, rotate the pan and bake for another 20-30 minutes until the zucchini is tender and golden brown. If it looks like the liquid has evaporated, add a touch more chicken stock, around ¼- 1/3 cup.
- Transfer the zucchini to a serving platter with the roasted tomatoes and any accumulated juices. Can be served hot or room temperature.