The weather has blissfully cooled here in the plains and I couldn't be happier! There are many reasons to love this time of year and near the top of the list for me is that this is where the usually separate food descriptors "fresh" and "comforting" get to collide.
Beautiful produce is still in abundance but my cravings have turned from salads to warm, baked casseroles and slow-cooked stews. It is this time of year for which one of our favorite baked dishes was made.
Here the flavors of pizza are stuffed into hollowed zucchini halves for a one dish meal that's veggie-centric and truly satisfying. It can be prepared in advance and baked at dinner time and it makes the best leftovers. If you aren't already checking your fridge to see if you have all of the ingredients on hand, read on to see how easy this is.
Begin the prep for this dish by browning Italian sausage. Or, use one of my favorite cheap tricks. You see, we don't eat a ton of meat in our house for environmental and humanitarian reasons. We do enjoy meat, but in order to keep ethically-raised, local meat in our budget we just eat less of it. I've found that ground pork in this category is far less expensive than local, artisan sausages. So when I don't need the casings, I just spice up ground pork with Italian sausage seasonings and pocket the extra cash!
Next, saute some veggies. This is where creativity and necessity come into play. Use whatever you have around or whatever sounds good to you. Most often I use onion, mushroom, and bell pepper, though I've added artichoke hearts and olives, too. Add tomato paste at the end for rich, concentrated tomato flavor. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds of the zucchini while your veggies are doing their thing. Then the meat and veg get mixed together along with breadcrumbs, herbs, eggs, and parmesan cheese. Sounds terrible, right?
Fill the zucchini boats with the stuffing and top it all off with mozzarella cheese. The whole dish spends a half an hour in the oven and comes out pure magic.
My mom made her version of this dish when I was growing up and I introduced it to my husband when we met. It's now one of our favorite comfort food meals. We know you'll dig it, too!
serves 4 generously
- 3/4 pound bulk Italian sausage (recipe for a homemade, inexpensive version below)
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 8 oz. crimini or other mushrooms, sliced
- 1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- coarse salt and black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 - 6 oz can tomato paste
- 4 medium to large zucchini
- 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
- 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 3 Tablespoons fresh chopped herbs such as parsley and basil, divided (optional)
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 8 oz mozzarella cheese, grated
In a large saute pan, cook the sausage over medium heat until browned and cooked through, stirring and breaking up regularly. Remove to a large bowl. No need to wash the pan; just return it to the heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium high heat until it's just beginning to soften. Add the mushrooms and bell pepper and cook, tossing occasionally, until the vegetables are slightly browned. Add the garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and oregano and cook 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for three minutes, stirring constantly, to remove the canned, acidic flavor. Transfer the veg mixture to the bowl along with the sausage and allow to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, slice the ends off the zucchini and discard. Cut them in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scoop out the seedy middles. (See note below regarding what to do with the innards.) Lay the zucchini halves cut-side up in a lightly greased baking dish. I used one 9x13 pan and one 8x8, but your pan needs will depend on the size of your zucchini. Season the zucchini boats with a sprinkling of salt.
Preheat the oven to 350. To the cooled meat and veg mixture, add the breadcrumbs, parmesan, and 2 Tablespoons of fresh herbs if you have them. Stir it all together and taste -- now is the time to make sure everything is seasoned the way you like it. Now stir in the beaten eggs. Fill the zucchini boats with the stuffing mixture and top everything with grated mozzarella. Lightly grease a piece of foil and place it, greased side down, over the dish.
Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 10 minutes more until the filling is hot, the zucchini al dente, and the cheese melted and beginning to color. Sprinkle the finished dish with the remaining herbs. Serve one whole zucchini per person, with crusty bread if you'd like.
- You can add the seedy bits of the zucchini to the veg mixture in the saute pan, but remember that seeds contain mostly water so you'll be diluting the flavor of your stuffing. I prefer to add the zucchini innards to my bag of veg scrap in the freezer that I later use to make stock.
- To make this a vegetarian meal, simply leave out the sausage and bulk up your veg. Add one or two cans of cannelini beans, drained and rinsed, to the stuffing for protein and deliciousness.
- To make this gluten-free, substitute GF breadcrumbs or oats for the regular breadcrumbs.
- To prep this ahead of time, do everything but bake it and put the tightly covered baking dish in the refrigerator for up to three days. When you're ready to bake it, allow the dish to come to room temperature before putting it in the oven and baking as directed.
Ground Italian Sausage
makes 3/4 pound
- 3/4 pound ground pork
- optional: 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
- up to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
When you're ready to brown your sausage, check to see if it has enough fat in it (you'll see white bits of glorious flavor throughout.) If it's rather lean, you'll want to add the optional olive oil to the saute pan first. Heat a pan over medium heat and add the pork. When it begins to cook, add the remaining ingredients and stir well. Heat until cooked through and use to your heart's content.