A few weekends ago I had dinner at River Deli, here in Brooklyn, and was happy to see several delicious sounding vegetarian options on the menu. (River Deli is an Italian restaurant, and I find that Italian restaurants are generally pretty good for that.) The entrée I ordered was zucchini stuffed with eggplant. This might sound like it lacks the pizazz one wants when eating out, but it turned out to be one of the more delicious things I’ve eaten lately: tender and light, but hearty and full of flavor. I couldn’t believe that such an easy combination of ingredients would yield such richness, so I asked the waiter what kind of cheese was used in the filling. No cheese! Just eggplant, roasted to its trademark silky richness, and just the right amount of crispy, salty breadcrumbs folded in to keep things from becoming dense. There may have also been a few glugs of olive oil in there. And I couldn’t wait to try it out at home.
Lately I’ve fallen off the wagon when it comes to making my own breadcrumbs, but for these I went to the extra trouble and it was very much worth it. My standard method for making breadcrumbs is to grind up day-old bread in a food processor; toss with a few tablespoons olive oil and pinch or two of salt; then spread out on a baking sheet and toast in a preheated 325° oven until golden brown, stirring often. The other way I make them is for when I’m using rustic bread and the crusts are too chewy to break down in the food processor (I don’t like ever cutting off the crusts, which strikes me as a huge waste). Cut the bread into small, crouton-sized cubes and spread them out on a baking sheet; toast in a preheated 325° oven until browned and uniformly crisp; place the croutons (and any other crumbs on the baking sheet) to a food processor and pulse until ground (this will make some noise). When I make them this latter way, I stir in the olive oil after toasting.
And you’ll be willing to trouble yourself with the breadcrumbs, because this method for stuffed zucchini is extremely simple. Make a filling from roasted eggplant and breadcrumbs, then divide it among a few hollowed-out zucchini halves and bake until tender. I add a vaguely floral dimension (and some additional crunchy texture) with toasted hazelnuts. If you don’t have hazelnuts, almonds make an excellent substitution, or you can forgo the nuts completely. And if I hadn’t been out of fresh parsley, I’d have thrown some of that in the filling, too. Clearly there’s lots of room for improvisation in a recipe like this. It’s also the kind of food that will surprise skeptics of vegan food. I like to call it “incidentally vegan,” because it’s a good reminder that there are lots of vegan foods that we wouldn’t even stop to consider along such terms—instead we just eat.
Zucchini Stuffed with Eggplant and Hazelnuts
Serves 4 as a main, 6 as a side
1 large globe eggplant (about 1-1/2 pounds)
5 medium zucchini (1-1/2 to 2 pounds total)
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
2 large shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons toasted breadcrumbs, preferably homemade (see above)
A few drops fresh lemon juice, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 425°.
2. Line a baking sheet with a piece of oil and place the eggplant on it. Prick the eggplant all over with a paring knife or fork. Place in the oven and roast until tender and slightly flattened, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool until safe to handle. Trim the top and peel off the skin using your hands—it will come off in strips—then discard it. Chop the peeled eggplant into small, 1/2-inch sized pieces, and transfer to a mixing bowl.
3. Reduce oven temperature to 400°.
4. Trim the ends off the zucchini then slice in half lengthwise. Using a melon baller or a narrow dessertspoon, carefully scoop out the seeds and some of the flesh from the zucchini halves, being careful not to pierce the shells and create a boat shape. Coarsely chop up the removed flesh, and set aside the hollowed zucchinis.
5. Heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat in a skillet or sauté pan. When hot, add the shallots and chopped zucchini flesh. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and much of the liquid has cooked off, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and 2 pinches of salt and cook until fragrant, less than a minute. Transfer this mixture to the mixing bowl with the eggplant. Let cool slightly, then stir in the hazelnuts and breadcrumbs to the eggplant mixture. Add salt, pepper, and lemon juice, tasting to get the balance right.
6. Arrange the hollowed zucchini in a greased, shallow baking dish in which they will snugly fit in a single layer. Fill the hollows with the eggplant mixture, ensuring that the filling is evenly distributed. Stir together remaining 2 tablespoon breadcrumbs, 1 teaspoon oil, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl, then divide over stuffed zucchinis. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the flesh of the zucchini is tender; you can test by gently piercing it with a knife. Serve hot or warm.