Another for the soon-to-be-bulging “zucchini files,” the other day we made a polenta-stuffed zucchini. At first glance, that might seem fairly straightforward; however, we added a slight twist, using what we thought was a pretty neat idea we saw in Great Chefs Cook Vegan, edited and photographed by Linda Long. It’s filled with great ideas for presentation, plus some pretty good-sounding recipes. And, when the title says great chefs, it means it, since it seems as if all the famous modern chefs have recipes included there.
The idea for this recipe came from a recipe that involved making stuffed “zucchini boxes” by shaving the squash into thin, wide strips, blanching it, and then using the strips to line a mold that was filled with a zucchini and tomato stuffing. It looked amazing. We knew that our version wouldn’t look like one produced by a famous chef, but we thought that we’d at least try the technique.
Since this is more of a technique than a recipe, we’ll focus on making the squash packets. You should realize that while we give a recipe for a Cheddar polenta, you could use pretty much anything for the stuffing. That said, if you do decide on polenta for a filling, try to find a coarse stone-ground cornmeal. It’ll provide better texture.
Procedure in detail:
Boil salted water. We’re going to use this water for two things. First, we’ll use it to peel the tomatoes before dicing them; that way, you won’t have some of the tomato dice with skins and some without. Now, normally, we would care enough to boil water for just the tomatoes, but we’ll also use it to blanch the squash, so might as well. So, bring 2 to 3 quarts of salted water to a boil. How much salt? We used several tablespoons.
Peel and core tomatoes. Cut an “X” in the bottom of each tomato, and, when the water is boiling, lower a single tomato into the water using a slotted spoon. Let it boil in the water for 10 seconds, no longer, and remove to a colander. Run cold water over the tomato to stop the cooking. Repeat with the other tomatoes. When the tomatoes are cool, the peels should just slide off. Use a paring knife to remove the core from the stem end of the tomato. Set aside until you’ll be plating the squash packets.
Slice and blanch squash. Use a vegetable peeler to shave off strips of zucchini, avoiding the center with all the seeds. The seeded center will fall apart while boiling, so you’ll need to think of another use for it. Once you’ve made all the zucchini strips you can, lower them into the boiling salted water and let cook for 60 seconds. Drain in a colander and stop the cooking by running cold water over the squash strips as you move them about. Drain completely and set aside while you make the polenta.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat (preferred) or parchment. We suggest a baking mat because that will insulate the bottom of the squash packets and help prevent burning.
Cook onion and garlic. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. When melted, add the onions and garlic and cook until tender, about 2 minutes.
Add cornmeal. Add the cornmeal and stir until it’s coated with butter. Continue to stir and cook until the cornmeal starts to smell like toasted or roasted corn, about 2 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and stir until smooth. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, until the cornmeal thickens, about 15 minutes. For this recipe, the polenta will bake a bit, so you don’t have to stir it until it’s super thick, just until it resembles a stiff batter.
Add cheese. Stir in the cheese, and, once melted, remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Fill custard cup. Place strips of zucchini in a custard cup or other small shallow cup, leaving the ends of the squash strips hanging over the edge. You want to use enough strips to completely cover the custard cup so the polenta won’t leak out. Fill halfway with polenta and fold the overhanging squash over the polenta, pressing it down slightly to smooth. Carefully invert the custard cup and remove the squash packet, placing it on a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining squash and polenta.
Bake. Slide into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until heated through.
Plate. While the squash packets are baking, dice the tomato, and, using a ring (we used a biscuit cutter, but almost anything would do, including a well-washed tuna can with the top and bottom removed), form a circle of tomato dice on each plate. Dust with basil. When the squash packets are done, use a spatula to place one on each circle of tomatoes.
We really liked the idea of using zucchini as a wrapper; it just looks elegant. Although, next time we’ll make a filling with a bit more flavor, perhaps a risotto instead of polenta. With the mild squash and the mild polenta, dinner was a little on the bland side. The fresh tomatoes helped, but it wasn’t quite enough to make anything really stand out. We guess that we’ll give five stars for the novel squash idea, and three for the bland taste, averaging out to four stars.