It’s August! You know what that means … the Godzillas of the vegetable kingdom are out there, lying around in gardens everywhere, growing bigger by the second. Any day now the neighbors will be knocking on your door with a gift of one (or ten) of these green monsters that they suddenly discovered are taking over their backyards. Then there’s always the stealth maneuver of just leaving a bag full on the front porch under cover of darkness. You need to be prepared. We all do.
I was recently the recipient of such a gift from my good friend, Alexandra, who this year started a garden at her super sweet little Portland house. As I pedaled home with two honker zukes in my bike basket, I thought, hmmm…. this is a lot of zucchini. Perhaps more than I can comfortably cope with. It was a tad overwhelming. As it happened, the next day another dear friend we’ll call Larry, was set to take the Bar exam after graduating from law school a few months ago. The Bar is a BIG DEAL exam. He had been studying like a fiend for weeks on end. He is also a confirmed zucchini hater. As in, if it were the last food left on earth after global warming turns the whole planet into a crispy wasteland, he would die before eating it. Anyway, on the night of my zucchini windfall, I was also feeling terribly anxious for Larry, facing this colossal exam, which after I fell asleep led to the ultimate vegetable stress dream … I dreamed I was standing in a barren parking lot, alone, in the semi-darkness, with giant chunks of tough, overgrown boiled zucchini in each hand. I knew I had to eat it ALL. I kept taking bites of this horrid, bland, mushy thing. Chewing, chewing. More bites. The chunks in my hands never got any smaller.
It was bad. Fortunately, the next morning brought fresh hope and inspiration. I recalled a recipe for stuffed zucchini that I had seen in a Persian cookbook. I loved the pairing of savory and sweet … I couldn’t remember what cookbook it was, but I set out to create something similar … ground beef, onions and tomatoes with cinnamon, raisins and pine nuts would turn my zaftig garden bounty into a dinner that even Larry might enjoy.
… And then — as often happens during harvest season — the plot thickened. On one of my school acupuncture shifts this week a bright yellow, curvy, warty looking thing suddenly appeared next to my jar of cotton balls. Kriquet, a classmate, who is currently in the final absolutely radiant stage of growing a baby, is also managing to grow amazing vegetables (AND do great work as an acupuncture intern) at the same time. The warty thing, I learned, is a variety of summer squash that can be cooked just like zucchini. Did I want to take it home?? Well — sure I did!! The squash wave was cresting, and I was going to surf it … the more the merrier!
Larry’s Stuffed Semi-Persian Zucchini:
- one large zucchini (or summer squash)
- 1 lb. ground beef, lamb or turkey (or make this vegan by using a pound of crumbled extra-firm tofu or — my personal favorite — several cups cooked lentils or yellow split peas)
- 16 oz. can diced tomatoes
- one large onion
- 6 (or more!) cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1 large bunch swiss chard (or spinach will do just fine)
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons cumin
- (pinches of other nice optional spices — chili powder, turmeric, coriander, dried thyme …)
- 1 tablespoon honey (or pomegranate molasses if you happen to have it!)
- 1 tablespoon red wine or balsamic vinegar
- olive oil
- Several handfuls chopped fresh cilantro or mint
- Several tablespoons raw pine nuts or slivered almonds
Using a large knife, halve zucchini lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds and soft center with a sturdy spoon. Brush cut surface with olive oil, and place halves on a cookie sheet with a rim in a 400 degree oven. Roast until soft but still sturdy. (A fork should go in easily, and edges just starting to brown.) Some liquid will probably accumulate in the centers. When cool enough to handle, just dump it out.
Meanwhile, dice onion and garlic, and saute in a bit of olive oil until soft. Add ground beef and spices, when cooked through, add diced tomatoes and raisins, and cook uncovered, so the liquid starts to evaporate. Chop swiss chard, and add to pan in several batches — it will wilt down as it cooks.
Now, using that same sturdy spoon, scrape the insides of the zucchini, removing as much of the flesh as you can, while still leaving the skin intact and sturdy enough to stuff. Toss the innards into the pan along with the chopped fresh mint and/or cilantro. Stir, taste, and adjust seasonings. Using a large slotted spoon, pile filling into the zucchini shells. Place the shells adjacent for support, and mound up the filling — yes, you will have some left over. Sprinkle nuts on the top, and bake at 375 for about 20 to 30 minutes until nuts are golden brown.
This makes enough for 4-6 hungry people or as a nice dish to take to a potluck. You can use the extra filling to fill portobello mushroom caps. (Brush with olive oil and bake them first til soft.) Or you can do what I usually do and use the extra filling for lunches — I love it over a baked sweet potato or some quinoa — or even a big bowl of plain steamed greens.