Food-related childhood memories can be a serious pain in the… posterior from time to time. If you’ve ever fancied a particular dish as a kid and tried to re-create that gloryfied-by-time-and-memory experience in your kitchen as an adult with nobody to tell you the details about the dish in question, you probably know how infuriatingly frustrating the results can be~!
One of the successful exceptions to those otherwise rather unsatisfying endeavors has recently been brought back to the forefront of my mind by Tyria’s Chef’s Guild with this little recipe:
It’s an incredibly easy-to-make, lively and truly summery dish I’ve first came across during the summer vacations I’ve spent in Italy in a sweet little town near Rome. My host, famously grumpy before the first dose of caffeine kicked in, usually sent my probably very annoying, bubbly-in-the-early-morning kiddy-self – eeesh, how the times have changed… – to a little pasta shop a couple of houses down the street to pick up a pile of freshly made pasta for lunch while he rose to full awareness. The same pasta shop where I encountered the original version of my Heart of Gold, by the way~! Anyways, one fine day, I arrived at the shop a little past my usual time, and the tiny space was filled with absolutely divine aromas. My interest was obviously showing on my face… one of the two sweet elderly ladies running the shop gave me a knowing smile while the other vanished into the small kitchen in the back – to return with a small pot, filled with the source of the delicious smell. She fished one of the green tubes out of the dish with a napkin, gave it to me and covered the rest before handing it over to me with our fresh pasta and the order to return the empty pot the next day. In hindsight, I was glad she really put some effort into sealing the pot as well as she did because, after that first bite into the deliciously filled green thing, I had a hard time resiting the urge to devour the whole load and not share a single bite of it all! Good thing the pot made it back home safely though, otherwise I’d probably hadn’t found out, for some time at least, what I was eating – Zucchini, stuffed with spiced minced meat, simmered to perfection in a simple tomato sauce.
While I was trying to track down a recipe for this a number of years back, I got bombarded with the usual Salsiccia-Stuffed Zucchini Boats, griddled, grilled or baked, but the results couldn’t have been more far off of what I was looking for, so I gave up on the research and went into the experiment phase without further ado. As it turned out, my memory served me surprisingly well – even though I didn’t have much of a clue what kind of spices I was tasting back then, somehow I had memorized them and was able to recognize them for what they had been in hindsight. Just a couple of minor tweaks later, this dish emerged and remained an all-time-favorite on our table. Since we’re talking “yumtastic, colorful early-summer” this month, I thought this lively almost-cooks-itself one-pot-wonder should be on the menu~
The Stuffed Zucchini
These amounts should net you 2 very generous dinner servings – the leftovers make for an incredibly tasty cold snack or lunch the next day!
250g 100% Lean Beef Mince or 70/30% Beef/Lamb Mince – both versions are equally delicious, but the Beef/Lamb blend is somewhat closer to the original~
6 Small Zucchinis, topped and tailed – picking zucchinis of the straighter variety makes stuffing them a bit easier
8 large, dry-marinated Black Olives, pitted and finely chopped
4 Sun-dried Tomatoes, finely chopped
½ Tsp Fennel Seeds, lightly crushed
½ Tsp Mustard Seeds
½ Tsp Chilli Flakes
Sea Salt and freshly cracked Black Pepper to taste
1 Clove of Garlic, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp dried Italian Herb Blend
2 Sprigs of Oregano, leaves picked and finely chopped
One 400g Can of Date Tomatoes, preserved in tomato juice
6 Tbsp of Concentrated Tomato Purée
1 Blob of Buffalo Mozzarella
2-3 Tbsp of Pine Nuts
Fresh Basil to decorate
1) Set the zucchinis upright, with the tailend-cut flat on your work-surface.
2) Pick up an apple corer or a very thin blade and tunnel through the center of the zucchinis, top to bottom, to remove the seedy bits and leave behind a very convenient hideaway for your mince.
3) Try to keep a steady hand while doing the tunnel-work and keep the corer or knife centered so the stuffing – as well as the zucchini around it – cook through evenly later.
4) Add the fennel and mustards seeds to a small, dry pan set onto medium-low heat and toast them until they start to give off small popping noises.
5) In the meantime, place the mince, olives, chilli flakes and half of the dried tomatoes in a large mixing bowl and generously season the lot with salt and pepper.
6) Once the seeds are toasty and aromatic, add them to the mince mixture and knead it with your hands or a fork until the spices and other ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the mince.
7) Add about a teaspoonful of the filling into each tube and, with the help of the backside of a chopstick, firmly press it down all the way to make sure there’s no chance of a trapped airbubble turning the zucchini into a source of piping hot shrapnel.
8) Once the first dose is safely tucked in inside the tubes, repeat the process until they’re filled up all the way.
9) Set a large, heavy-based pan with a fitting lid onto medium heat.
10) In with the tomatoes, juice and all, and you’re almost done~!
11) Stir the remaining ½ of the dried tomatoes into the tomatoes along with the dried herbs, garlic and tomato purée.
12) Hold back on salt and pepper at this point – the mince will “bleed” some of it’s spiced juices into the sauce during the process, so you might overseason the end result if you adjust the seasoning of the sauce now.
13) Wriggle the stuffed tubes into the sauce, pop on the lid and leave the lot to simmer for 15-20 mins – a thin and sharp knife easily sliding in and out of the thicker end of a zucchini will tell you when they’re done.
14) Just in case they’re not entirely covered by the tomatoey liquids while they’re sitting in the pan, turn them over every 5 mins.
15) Once they’re done, remove the zucchinis from the pan and set them onto a tray or large dish.
16) Give the sauce a hearty stir-through after sprinkling it with the fresh oregano and have a taste along with a slice of stuffed zucchini. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.
17) Place the tubes back in the sauce, top them off with your mozzarella slices and place the lid back on.
18) Have a peek at the cheesy blanket after 3-4 mins – a beautifully oozy cover is your cue to plate up.
19) Place 2-3 tubes per person in deep dishes, spoon some of the sauce around the tubes and top the servings with as many basil leaves and toasted pine nuts as you like. There’s no such thing as an overdose of pine nuts~!
Oh, and here’s an alternative ending for those lucky ones with an oven at their disposal~
– Pop the cooked tubes into a large, high rimmed oven-proof dish, cover them with the sauce and, after giving the dish a careful shake to distribute the sauce, evenly scatter the pine nuts across the surface.
– Top the lot with the mozzarella and add a thin layer of freshly grated parmesan.
– Place the dish in an oven preheated to 200°C just long enough for the mozzarella to melt and the parmesan to crown the dish with a deliciously golden crisp.
– Add a few green dots of basil just before serving this taste of early-summer Latium~
By the way, just because my head instantly connects these yummies to all things summery doesn’t mean they’re not just as delicious during any other season~!