Throughout the Mediterranean, vegetables stuffed with various fillings, including meat, often fill the role of entrée. But when I tried to sell my meathead American husband on this recipe at any early stage in its development—the lamb then thoroughly camouflaged by bread crumbs—he squinted at it and, without venturing to take a bite, said, “Where’s the beef?” To be fair, neither of us is a big fan of zucchini served straight up, so he was justified in wondering if I’d lost my mind.
But when he reluctantly stuck a fork in this dish and discovered all those other wonderful Mediterranean ingredients—the ground lamb, the olives, the tomatoes and the cheese—he got happy. The kids liked the stuffed zucchini better minus the cheese and olives, so if you are preparing one dinner for kid and grownups, you might take those two items out of half the mixture,. You’re also welcome to substitute ground beef for lamb.
This is a great dish for entertaining, because you could set up the whole thing a day before, to the point of stuffing the zucchini. Cover it up, refrigerate it overnight, and then just top it with the crumb mixture and bake it when your guests arrive. Be sure to give it a few extra minutes in the oven since it will be cold from the fridge.
6 medium zucchini
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds lean ground lamb
1/4 cup dry white or red wine
One 16-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, with juice, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence, see Note
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Slice the zucchini in half lengthwise. With the tip of a sharp paring knife, cut a 1/4-inch border around the flesh. Use a small spoon or a melon baller to scoop out the flesh and seeds, leaving a shell about 1/4-inch thick. Reserve the flesh. Arrange the shells cut side up on an oiled baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and bake until slightly softened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and flip over to let any juices drain out. Cool.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and red bell pepper. Finely chop the zucchini flesh and add to the pan. Cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Increase the heat to medium-high. Stir in the lamb and cook until there are no longer any signs of pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the tomatoes and their juice, the tomato paste, and the herbes de Provence. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes. Just before serving, add the feta cheese and olives. Fill each shell with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the filling, depending on the size of the zucchini.(Reserve any leftover filling for another use. It freezes very well.)
Arrange the filled shells on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Mix the bread crumbs with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and sprinkle some over the top of each zucchini. Bake in the 375ºF oven until browned on top, about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Note: Herbes de Provence is an herb mixture from the south of France consisting of basil, fennel, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme. If you can’t find it, use a mixture of any of those herbs.