I used to hate zucchini. No, that’s not entirely true. I just didn’t care about them—at all. I viewed them as green, watery, tasteless, and not entirely attractive. And millions of them were always showing up in the summer as well-meaning gardeners unloaded their surplus on their friends. Just what was one to do with all that zucchini?
“You can make zucchini bread, you know,” the gardeners would say.
My response was that zucchini bread didn’t taste like zucchini so why not leave the damned things out of it. I just didn’t see the point of growing them, preparing them, or eating them.
It would've been dramatic to write of an epiphany—as if one day I ate the most incredible zucchini dish and that was my rebirth. But somehow that could never have happened, not with zucchini. It would prove to be more subtle than that. They’d have to sneak their way into my heart, one meal at a time.
The long road to zucchini acceptance, which later grew to love, began in Italy. Italians do the most marvelous things with all vegetables. So if they could give this squash its familiar name—zucchine, or, little pumpkins—and eat it all summer with relish, then perhaps I needed to rethink my indifference. I started eating the stuff deliberately, hoping that I might see the light.
Gradually this little pumpkin’s truth became evident—there are rules to the choosing, preparation and eating of zucchini. The first rule is not to brag about the size of your zucchini because the smaller ones are better. Blandness is their nemesis and the bigger they get, the more water they hold, and the blander they taste. They should be small, firm and shiny. Start with the right zucchini and the rest is quite simple.
They should also be cooked properly. Like all things simple, this isn’t always evident. The luscious crispness of raw zucchini can be misleading. To be enjoyed properly it must be cooked thoroughly. The flavors must be concentrated by reduction in order for them to blossom.
For this same reason, seedy zucchini are problematic. If there’s an abundance of seeds, they and their watery nests must be removed. The larger the zucchini, the more seeds there are. This strengthens the logic of choosing small ones in the first place.
The wonder of zucchini is their almost chameleon-like character. They’re never too assertive and their nature is to meld with almost any other flavor, be it mild or piquant. Seafood, particularly shellfish, is a perfect partner for zucchini, as are other vegetables and herbs. Zucchini can be boiled, sautéed, fried, grilled, or baked—all to good effect.
The most perfect state for zucchini, however, is stuffed. Nature surely had that in mind when deciding upon zucchini’s shape. Cut in half lengthwise and hollowed out like a canoe, they serve as receptacles to almost any kind of seafood, meat, or vegetable. They can even be stuffed with themselves—and maybe a few herbs and breadcrumbs. Or, cut crosswise, their middle can be hollowed out and, like the skin of a hot dog, stuffed with ground meat.
It’s that last preparation that was the final straw for me. We were eating lunch in a tiny trattoria in Bologna, Italy when a hungry college student was served several small, whole zucchini stuffed with ground meat and swimming in a light broth with chopped tomatoes. He was attacking his zucchini with gusto, mopping up every drop of the broth with pieces of torn bread.
Already enthusiastically hungry, this sent me over the zucchini edge. Oh, I’d already become fond of the innocuous little squashes, but this was the first zucchini dish that I saw that I really had to have. Ordering it as soon as our waiter approached us, it ended up being the perfect lunch on a blustery day. I’ve thought of it often since then and decided to replicate it. Now it’s yours to try.
Zucchini Stuffed with Meat in a Simple Broth
Zucchini Farciti in Brodo di Carne
2 1/2 lbs. zucchini, small and as straight as possible
1/2 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
2 tbl. dry breadcrumbs
1 1/2 tsp. salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, freshly grated
2 tbl. extra virgin olive oil
3 cups meat broth, preferably homemade
5 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice
several sprigs of Italian parsley
Rinse the zucchini and soak them in a large bowl of water for about 15 minutes to remove any grit that may be attached to them.
Combine the veal, pork, breadcrumbs, egg, salt, pepper, and cheese in a large mixing bowl. Mix the ingredients thoroughly.
Remove the zucchini from the water, being sure to leave any grit in the bottom of the bowl. Dry them and cut them in half crosswise. Take each zucchini half and remove its inner core lengthwise with an apple corer. Be careful not to pierce the skin of the zucchini. This may be a bit tricky at first but is easily mastered after a few tries. Discard the cores or use them in another dish.
Stuff the zucchini’s holes with the ground meat mixture. Make small meatballs, about an inch in diameter, from whatever meat remains after all the zucchini are stuffed. Heat the olive oil in a small pan and lightly brown the meatballs on all sides.
Put the broth into frying pan that is large enough to fit all the zucchini and meatballs in one layer. Add the zucchini, meatballs, chopped tomatoes and parsley sprigs, a large pinch of salt, and several grinding of black pepper. Cover the pan and heat it over a medium flame until the broth gently simmers. Cook the zucchini for about 40 minutes or until they’re tender. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper if necessary.
Remove the zucchini carefully and put several into individual shallow soup bowls. Add a little broth and a meatball to each bowl, being sure to include some of the cooked tomatoes. Serve immediately with some crusty bread.