Friday, September 5, 2014

Giant Stuffed Zucchini

Giant Stuffed Zucchini

See the vegetable pictured below? A coworker brought me one recently and asked me if I could identify what it is. Based on its color and the texture of its skin, I said "some kind of zucchini," which turned out to be right, although I'd never seen a large, round zucchini before. It makes sense they would exist though; zucchini is a type of squash, many of which are round and about this size (about the size of a typical acorn squash).

Giant round zucchini, next to iPhone for size comparison

I wanted to find a great way to prepare, something other than what you'd normally do with the cucumber-size zucchini. I decided I wanted to stuff and bake it. Turns out, this was a good thought, as the stuffed zucchini was really tasty.

I was worried the zucchini might get too soft, but it stayed quite firm, even after I pre-baked it to soften it a bit. Since getting the timing and temperature right for stuffed dishes to have the stuffing and that-which-is-stuffed both optimally cooked is very difficult, I partially cooked the zucchini ahead of time and also fully cooked the stuffing ingredients. The second baking then finishes cooking the zucchini while warming through the stuffing.

Giant Stuffed Zucchini

Makes 4 servings

2 giant round zucchini, washed, any protruding stem parts removed
Extra-virgin olive oil (for brushing or spraying on zucchini)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8 oz. uncooked Italian chicken sausage, removed from casings
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Red chili pepper flakes
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tbsp. fresh chopped sage leaves
1 cup shredded gruyere cheese
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (see note)
1 cup cooked white rice (see recipe for perfect white rice)
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Note: To make fresh bread crumbs, cut the crust from a hunk of good bread and pulse in a food processor until ground to a coarse crumb.

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut each zucchini in half around the equator (so that the stem end is part of one half, and the non-stem end is the other half). Scoop out and discard the seeds and other soft inside parts (this will leave a shell about 1/2-inch thick). Spray or brush the cut side of each zucchini with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool (may be refrigerated if making ahead of time).

2. Heat a large sauté pan or frying pan over medium heat. Add the sausage and sauté until cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper-towel-lined plate. Add olive oil to pan. When hot, add the onion, red pepper and garlic. Season to taste with salt and a pinch of red chili pepper flakes. After about 5 minutes, add the thyme and sage, then sauté for about another 5 minutes until the vegetables are softened and the herbs are fragrant. Combine with the cooked sausage and set aside. At this point, the sausage-vegetable mixture may be cooled and refrigerated if making this ahead of time.

3. Reheat oven to 350 F. Place the pre-baked zucchini halves on a rimmed baking sheet, cut-side up. In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of the sausage-vegetable mixture with the shredded gruyere cheese, bread crumbs and cooked rice. Stuff about 1/4 of the mixture in the cavity of each zucchini half, leaving the stuffing slightly mounded. Spoon 1 tbsp. of grated parmesan on the top of each mound of stuffing and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Bake in the oven until the mixture is warmed through and lightly browned on top, about 35-45 minutes. Serve warm.

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