Stuffed Zucchini, For Vegetarians and Carnivores

(Or, Saving the Big Ones)

Most American gardeners plant summer squash, of which the favorite variety is probably a form of zucchina (literally, the “little marrow”) better known by its familiar plural, “zucchini.”  In England, this Italian cucurbit is known by its French name, “courgette,” while the French  — well, they probably have a Hungarian or maybe a Japanese name for them; it makes no sense, but neither does the fact that in London, Postmen work for the Royal Mail, while in New London, Mailmen work for the U.S. Postal Service — doing exactly the same thing.

Although scientists have learned that a single plant will generally yield enough zucchini for a family of fourteen, a lot of people will plant two, three or even more of them, “because you never know” as my grandmother used to say.  This is why in many parts of America one is cautioned not to park one’s car with the windows open after August 20th, because somebody may come by while you’re gone and fill the vehicle with freshly picked zucchini.

Now, it’s true that if you want to enjoy this vegetable at its absolute best then you need to pick it while the attached flower is still firm and unwilted — that is, when the zuke is no more than about four inches long.  At this stage even the lightest grilling renders them tender yet still toothsome.  Picked even younger they may be enjoyed raw, or, dipped in batter (along with the flower!) and fried.  But to feed these treats to more than one person at a time, you really need three or four healthy mature plants so that you can gather enough at one time for a substantial portion.  On the other hand, some varieties in my experience (such as “Fordhook” or “Cocozelle”) have tended to branch as they grow, producing megaplants with three or four different and fully viable fruiting arms from which an astonishing harvest may be had almost daily.

Even the most diligent of gardeners such as ourselves cannot be out in the zucchini patch every day, nor is the human eye skilled in penetrating the secrets lurking beneath those fantastically large and scratchy leaves.  In other words, one afternoon you come out to the garden for a quick look and there dangling on your zucchini plant is what seems to be a stripéd Aztec War Club, over a foot long and four inches thick and surely weighing a couple of hundred pounds.

Eee-yow!, you say to yourself, How could this have happened?  That thing was the size of my pinkie finger only a coupla days ago…  And with supreme irritation you cut the Monster Zuke free and look around for somebody to help you carry it to the compost heap, which is the only thing it’s good for.

Whoa  — not at all!  While it’s true that a mature summer squash is almost useless as a seed source (the cucurbit family is the only member of the plant kingdom which might be justly termed “promiscuous,” meaning you will have a 50% chance at best that your zucchini seeds will sprout other zucchini) it can still make a tasty entree on the family dinner table.

Stuffed Zucchini, Two Ways

NOTE: The finished product is meant to be eaten entire, skin and all, but if you’ve really let your zucchini patch go and the rind on the monsters has hardened substantially, either of these dishes is still viable.  Simply eat them from the inside, leaving the outer shell as a kind of disposable bowl.

First, thoroughly scrub your titanic zuke with a scouring pad intended for use on a non-stick pan, and trim off any scars or blemishes with a sharp knife.  Split the thing lengthwise, sitting them cut side up. With a tablespoon or a sturdy metal serving spoon,  gradually scrape out all the pithy, seedy material, starting along the center line; stop when you get to the firm ‘flesh.’  Sometimes this is only a quarter inch from the rind, though usually it’s thicker.  The scraped-out, pithy, seedy junk goes into the compost.

You should now have what seem like a pair of dugout canoes for Barbie and Ken.  Don’t cut them up yet, or they won’t stay stuffed while they cook!

Method 1: For Vegetarians
1 too-big zucchina
1 generous cup Polenta corn meal
4 (+/-) cups water
2 tsp salt
8 oz. Gorgonzola cheese
4-6 oz. chèvre (goat cheese)
8-12 oz. tomato sauce (or fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded & chopped, plus salt and pepper to taste)
2 TBSP Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350.  Put the goat cheese into the freezer for a few minutes; this is just to chill it, to make it easier to work with.  Sprinkle the polenta meal into a jug holding about 1 1/2 cups of cold water, stirring to eliminate any air pockets.  Bring the remaining 2 1/2 cups of water to a boil; add the salt, then pour the soaked polenta into it, stirring constantly as it comes back up to a boil.  Lower the heat to simmer, and stir for a few minutes until the polenta suddenly begins to thicken.  Keep stirring half a minute or so longer to ensure it’s evenly hot, then switch off the burner.  Set the prepared zucchini halves onto a baking sheet and crumble half the Gorgonzola cheese evenly into each, then ladle about two thirds of the polenta over this (one third into each zuke).  Take the chèvre out of the freezer (it should be quite firm, but not frozen) and chop or grate it evenly over them, then ladle out the remaining polenta over this.  The zucchini halves should be just about filled.  Spoon the tomato sauce (or chopped tomatoes) generously over them, then bake for 35-40 minutes.  Remove them for a moment, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese, then broil until golden brown.  Cool for a few minutes, then chop into large segments and serve.

Method 2: For Carnivores
1 too-big zucchina
1 generous cup brown rice
2 (+/-) cups stock
1 onion, chopped fine
8 – 12 oz. hamburger meat (or any leftover meat, suitably chopped up)
4-6 oz. chèvre (goat cheese)
8-12 oz. tomato sauce (or fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded & chopped, plus salt and pepper to taste)
2 TBSP Parmesan cheese

Cook the brown rice in vegetable or meat stock (never use water!) until just done, maybe 15-20 minutes; leave the lid on and set aside.  Pre-heat the oven to 350; par-cook the prepared zucchini halves on a baking sheet in the warming-up oven, taking them out just when it gets to full temperature so they are not so much cooked as hot right through but still firm – “par-boiled,” is the old term.  (You can actually par-boil them if you like, but you’ll need an awfully big boiling pot!).  Put the goat cheese into the freezer for a few minutes; this is just to chill it, to make it easier to work with.  Sauté the onion in a skillet with a little oil, adding the hamburger meat after 10 minutes and then cooking until it’s just barely done; remove from the heat and set aside.  Put about a third of the cooked rice, then half the meat and onion, into each zuke half.  Take the chèvre out of the freezer (it should be quite firm, but not frozen) and chop or grate it evenly over the meat, then cover with the remaining rice.  The zucchini halves should be nearly filled.  Spoon the tomato sauce (or chopped tomatoes) generously over them, and bake for 25-30 minutes.  Remove for a moment, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese, then broil until golden brown.  Cool for a few minutes, then chop into large segments and serve.

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