Provençal Baked Vegetables
serves 4 (or 2 with leftovers for the next day)
This is a recipe I've been meaning to put up on my Sunday Supper website for a long time. But you'll see as you read on, it's a time-consuming recipe to write up and a time-consuming recipe to read. It's long because I've included a lot more "tips" than in other recipes and some photos. Don't be intimidated; it's very easy to prepare.
After you've done it once or twice, you'll develop your own time-saving shortcuts. The flavor and texture of the cooked vegetables improve if made a day ahead and reheated the next day. It's also great picnic fare.
2 flat onions
3 Nice ronde zukes (long, skinny zukes don't work in this recipe)
4 medium-size tomatoes
1/2 cup basmati rice (or breadcrumbs)
1/3 lb. ground beef, pork or veal
4 oz. pancetta
4 cloves garlic
1 egg, slightly beaten
4 very large ("summer size") tomatoes or the equivalent
10 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped
Lightly brown the rice in about 2 TBS olive oil, then add ¾ cup water. (The water will spatter in the hot oil so have the cover ready at hand and put it on immediately after adding the water.) After the spatter has subsided, add salt, give the rice a little stir and cook covered over a low flame without stirring until tender (about 20 minutes). (If you have used the right proportion of rice-to-water, there will be no need to drain the water when the rice is finished cooking. All the water will have been absorbed.) After the rice has finished cooking, set it aside off the stove to rest until ready to use.
While the rice is cooking, prepare the zukes, tomatoes and onions as follows:
Cut the tops off the zukes and tomatoes and reserve the tops for use later in this recipe.
Peel the onion; cut the top off and discard it.
Cut a thin slice off the bottom of the zuke and the onion -- only enough to enable them to stand upright.
With a sharp knife, cut a deep cone out of the top of each zuke and onion, leaving the outer skin and root end completely in tact. (Set aside these cones for use later in this recipe.) Your cut should be deep enough to allow you to put in a fair amount of stuffing without overwhelming the vegetable.
For the tomato, gently cut out the inner pulp and scoop out the seeds with a spoon, leaving the skin completely in tact. Discard what you scoop out. Lightly salt the inside and invert the tomatoes on a wire rack to extract some of the juice while you prepare the stuffing. (This step is optional.)
Steam the zukes and onions over a low flame until each is about ¾ cooked (i.e. only slightly resilient to a poke). This process could take up to 30 minutes, if you are using fairly large vegetables. If you steam them in the same pan, you should remove the zukes first and let the onions cook further. Let them cool, inverted, on a wire rack.
While the vegetables are steaming, prepare the stuffing as follows:
Dice the pancetta and sauté in a sauce pan until golden brown. Then chop it in your food processor (using a very sharp blade) until it resembles coarse bread crumbs. Put the processed pancetta in a large bowl to which you will continue to add the stuffing ingredients as they are ready.
Lightly process the cooked rice in your food processor until the rice kernels are about 1/3 their original size.
Chop the raw cones from the onions and zukes in the food processor and sauté them in olive oil until translucent. Add to the large bowl with the rice.
In a sauté pan, fully cook the ground meat. Process it in the food processor to get an even texture and add it to the large bowl.
Chop a small handful of herbs and add to the same bowl.
To the bowl, add the 4 cloves of garlic put through a garlic press (green, inner sprout removed).
Season to taste with salt, pepper and a little freshly grated nutmeg (don't be shy with the nutmeg!) and mix together.
Add one lightly beaten large egg. (Don't taste after this point due to possible salmonella contamination from the raw egg.)
(This recipe makes 2 cups of stuffing, enough for 8-9 medium-sized vegetables.)
Stuff and bake the vegetables as follows:
Add as much stuffing as will fit into each vegetable, mounding a little on the top.
To the zukes and tomatoes, secure their reserved tops over the mound of stuffing.
Lightly oil an oven-proof, flat, shallow ceramic dish large enough to hold all the vegetables. Drizzle a few teaspoons of olive oil over each vegetable to give it a light glaze. Bake in a 350° oven for about 45 minutes. At about the 30-minute point, lay a flat sheet of foil over the vegetables and continue to cook for another 15-20 minutes.
While the vegetables are baking, prepare the sauce as follows:
Peel and seed the tomatoes. You should have about 2 cups of pulp and juice. Coarsely chop them.
In a deep-sided sauce pan, cook the tomatoes over high heat, boiling out the juice. Since the heat will be high, you'll need to watch the pan closely, stirring as necessary. Your objective is to cook down the tomatoes to a thick, almost paste-like consistency (from about 2 ½ cups to 1 ½ cups) while the vegetables are baking. Toward the end of the cooking, add a few tablespoons of olive oil and continue to cook at high heat to emulsify the oil into the sauce.
After the sauce has finished cooking, add the finely chopped basil and remove from heat. Check the seasoning (I sometimes add a dash of sugar at this point if the sauce is too acetic).
Put one of each type of vegetable on individual serving plates and pass the tomato sauce in a separate bowl.
Short cuts: To minimize the clean-up time, I use only one deep-sided pan to cook all the stuffing ingredients. I first cook the rice and in the same pan I then cook the pancetta, which gives off enough fat to use to cook the chopped onion and zuke "cones". Then I cook the meat. Finally, I cook the tomato sauce. This takes more time than cooking them simultaneously in separate pans, but I prefer to have a glass of wine while I cook (and prolong the cooking process) to cleaning up the many pots.
Quantities: I usually prepare one of each type of vegetable per person. But you can vary that according to your own tastes.
Flat onions: I prefer to use Cipolini onions in this recipe for their flat shape and sweetness. If these aren't available, medium-size white onions (that are flat in shape) are OK.
Bread crumbs: You could use dried bread crumbs instead of rice, but choose a bread crumb that will not impart too much flavor to the stuffing.
Fresh herbs: We've tried many different combinations of fresh herbs and they all work. Our favorite is basil and chervil. The chervil brings out the subtle licorice flavor in the basil.
Baking the vegetables: To be on the safe side, the first time you prepare the recipe, you should bake the tomatoes separately because they will bake faster than the zukes and onions if you had not precooked those enough. If you had, all the vegetables should be ready at the same time and you could bake them in the same dish as shown.
Cooking time: This time is approximate. The time will depend on the size of your vegetables and how much you have pre-cooked them during the steaming stage.
Peel and seed: Most recipes instruct you to "peel and seed the tomatoes". They don't tell you about the juice! If you seed the tomatoes over the sink by squeezing, you'll inevitably be squeezing out the juice with the seeds. When tomatoes are fat and juicy in the summer, their juice contains a lot of acid that gives the tomato a good flavor. I capture the juice by squeezing the tomatoes over a sieve on top of a bowl. The sieve catches the seeds and the juice runs through. I then use a wooden spoon to mash the pulp remaining in the sieve to extract as much juice as possible.