Stuffed Zucchini

I realized that this past year, I've made more than a few vegetarian friends -- my workplace seems to be full of them, and I can count 6 just off the top of my head. Having lived in Bologna, where ragu' is king (which often contains beef, pork, and veal) and now living in Rome, a city where pork reigns supreme (I'm looking at you, guanciale) my savory recipes have not always been very vegetarian friendly. In fact, recipes that are usually suitable for non-meat eaters usually become off limits when in my hands. If I'm making a risotto, I'm likely to sneak in a little pancetta, because everything is better with pancetta, right? If I have a green vegetable, I'm known to spruce it up with a little prosciutto, because prosciutto is never a bad idea in my book. 

The many vegetarians in my life have inspired me to find good, filling, yet still meat free recipes (it's always sad to see the vegetarian eating a green salad while everyone else has a steak). I've set aside the amatriciana and saltimbocca in favor of butternut squash and zucchini tarts, roasted tomato soup, spinach and potato frittatas, rigatoni with eggplant, and tomato cobbler. I've also tried out more seafood recipes for the vegetarians that eat fish, like this swordfish or salmon with strawberry salsa. In November, I revamped my Thanksgiving menu to make it vegetarian inclusive, providing meat-free stuffing and alternatives to the turkey. Overall it's been a nice challenge for me, culinarily speaking, and has made me rethink my usual repertoire.

The latest meat-free recipe to come out of my kitchen is for these stuffed zucchini, born in an attempt to use up ricotta leftover from a pound cake. The result is superb, one that I'm sure my vegetarian friends will be pleased with -- festive boats of bright green zucchini packed with a cheesy filling, crispy brown on the outside and creamy on the inside with a sprinkle of basil for freshness, a dish substantial and filling enough for the vegetarians to not feel like they're missing out. Added bonus: these are a great way to use up all that summer zucchini and basil that are about to take over your gardens. 

A couple of notes: I used a dryer variety of ricotta here, which worked great. The ricotta sold in American supermarkets tends to have a bit more moisture so you might have to add more breadcrumbs than listed below if the filling does not seem firm enough. These are great served hot or at room temperature, and make a delicious side dish or even appetizer as well as a vegetarian main dish. Here I was cooking for a small group so the recipe is for 4 people, but feel free to increase the proportions if you'd like. Enjoy everyone!

4 zucchini
1 cup Italian bread, chopped into small pieces
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup ricotta
1 egg
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon plain dry breadcrumbs
1/4 cup basil, chopped, plus extra for garnish
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bring a large pot of water to boil. Place the zucchini in the boiling water and cook for about 6-8 minutes. Drain the zucchini and place immediately in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. While the zucchini cool, soak the 1 cup bread with the milk and set aside.

When the zucchini are cool enough to work with, slice them in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulp using a small spoon. Place all the pulp in a bowl and set aside the zucchini shells. Using a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, squeeze as much water as possible out of the zucchini pulp, then finely chop it and put it back in its bowl. Mix the egg, ricotta, and softened bread/milk mixture into the zucchini pulp. Next add the breadcrumbs, basil, and Parmesan and stir everything together. Season the filling to taste with salt and pepper. If the filling mixture seems too dry, add a tablespoon of milk and stir to combine. 

Place the zucchini shells in a lightly greased baking pan and fill with the stuffing. Drizzle the stuffed zucchini with a bit of olive oil (this will make it nice and brown on the top) and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the zucchini filling is set and nicely browned. Let cool slightly before serving. Sprinkle with more basil and another drizzle of olive oil if you'd like. Serves 4. 

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