Italian

An Impressive-Looking, Incredibly Forgiving Way to Cook Zucchini

September  1, 2016

After five years of following to the letter Chad Robertson’s recipe for eggplant involtini, an endeavor that requires salting, draining, and deep-frying, I branched out—first dipping in a toe (opting to roast instead of fry) then jumping into the deep end: Zucchini replaced the eggplant, and the filling materialized from a sweep of the fridge, a mix of fresh corn polenta, mozzarella, cilantro, and Swiss chard (which had to be revived from near-death in cold water first).

This haphazard assembly ultimately baked beautifully, the coils emerging from the oven with surfaces bronzed, creamy filling spilling into a bubbling tomato sauce.

While I likely will never recreate this version, I learned a lesson: The involtini format is a forgiving one. I’ve since made several variations, some more successful than others. These are my observations:

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• A creamy-textured base like ricotta (or polenta) is essential, but the additions can vary endlessly: herbs (parsley, cilantro, chives), vegetables (sautéed mushrooms or greens, roasted red peppers), cheese (cubed mozzarella or fontina, grated Parmesan), and nuts (toasted pignoli or walnuts) will all provide depth of flavor and a welcome textural contrast. An eggplant caponata or a roasted eggplant "caviar" might work, too, though I haven't tried (and something like this might need to be mixed with some breadcrumbs to give it a little more body).

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Top Comment:
“Traditionally they are made of meat with a cheese filling, secured by toothpicks, and cooked in a sauce. Unsurprisingly, the Tartine version is unconventionally vegetarian and Stafford's version is a good riff on a this, but the provenance and history of this meat-focused dish deserves to be acknowledged. Anyhow, kudos to Alexandra for providing her own rendition of non-traditional involtini.”
— cv
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Homemade ricotta is a treat but is by no means necessary—store-bought, whole milk varieties work fine. And though I haven’t tried this using jarred tomato sauce here, I feel homemade sauce is important: Fresh sauce keeps this dish tasting bright and summery, despite its homey nature.

Left, long slices of zucchini are roasted until flexible enough to roll. Right, the zucchini rolled around a creamy filling and nestled in sauce, ready for the oven. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

When selecting your zucchini, look for long ones, which will allow you to create long slices, which help keep the coils sealed during the rolling process.

Don’t be tempted to overfill. Two heaping teaspoons seems to strike the right filling-to-wrapper ratio. Too much filling, moreover, makes the assembly difficult, and it ultimately can’t be contained by the narrow strip of zucchini. If you find yourself with extra filling on hand, save it, and on a subsequent evening, spoon it into halved bell peppers, and roast them in the same manner (in a dish slicked with sauce) until bubbling.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

What is your garden loading you down with these days? (Zucchini, perhaps?) How are you cooking it all? Tell us in the comments.

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16 Comments

Kate V. April 22, 2017
This is a staple in our house, paired with pasta. I'm super lazy and just use cubes on feta instead of making a filling. Works beautifully!
 
heatheranne September 11, 2016
This was really tasty! I don't really like chard on its own, so this was a good way to use up the bunch I had languishing in the fridge. Cutting the zucchini was a bit of a process, and I think I overcooked it initially, but it worked out in the end. Definitely will make again.
 
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Alexandra S. September 11, 2016
Nice! So great to hear this. Next time I make this, I'm going to try skipping the flipping and second side 5-minute roasting — not sure it's necessary. I'll report back!
 
cv September 1, 2016
A few notes seem to be in order.<br /><br />Involtini is the Italian diminutive word meaning "little bundles." Traditionally they are made of meat with a cheese filling, secured by toothpicks, and cooked in a sauce.<br /><br />Unsurprisingly, the Tartine version is unconventionally vegetarian and Stafford's version is a good riff on a this, but the provenance and history of this meat-focused dish deserves to be acknowledged.<br /><br />Anyhow, kudos to Alexandra for providing her own rendition of non-traditional involtini.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. September 1, 2016
Absolutely — thank you for mentioning this! As I was writing this up, I remembered a recipe from Tasting Rome for involtini, but then spaced on looking it up. I just opened TR and there's a recipe for involtini di mano: rolls of beef secured with toothpicks! They use carrots and celery sticks in the filling, then braise them in a tomato sauce, and it all looks very traditional and authentic. Love the idea of beef with a cheese filling—yum!
 
PHIL September 2, 2016
cv, they are also made with swordfish or eggplant in Sicily or even cucuzza, better know as "googutz". Meat is definitely not the absolute rule. Meat was an expensive commodity in Sicily. The meat involtini is more commonly known as braciole to NY Italians , especially those of Neapolitan descent.
 
PHIL September 2, 2016
Alexandra, any Italian would be happy to eat your dish without judgement. It a use what you have kind of dish and varies regionally and even from family to family. As is common with Italians , we all feel our recipe is better than the other guy's recipe.
 
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Alexandra S. September 2, 2016
I love it, great to hear this, Phil. I was looking up a recipe for an Italian stuffed eggplant recently and learned the same thing—there were as many recipes for it as cooks and variances would reflect the offerings of the region.
 
cv September 2, 2016
Phil,<br /><br />I'm sure cookbooks and other references don't cover every single variation, but it is noteworthy that in the 19th Century Artusi book has no mention of involtini, but ten recipes for either braciole or braciolini and every single one of them is a meat-based dish.<br /><br />Furthermore, in Il Talismano, there are three recipes for involtini, again, all meat based.<br /><br />In Gossetti Della Salda's book, there are five recipes for braciole and seven for involtini and again all 12 recipes are meat-based.<br /><br />Resourceful cooks have adapted traditional dishes with whatever they had available, for sure, it is clear that in the annals of Italian food history, involtini/braciole are meat based dishes.<br /><br />What is possible is that the dish served here in the USA is an offshoot of the original dish, much like "ragu" in the United States in considered a tomato sauce and often assumed as vegetarian, whereas the original "ragu" in Italy was *ALWAYS* meat based.
 
PHIL September 2, 2016
braciole , yes meat based,usaully beef but also pork and veal. involtini no , not only meat based. Braciole , being a subst of involtini. I have eaten involtini in the motherland made with swordfish and with eggplant.
 
Smaug September 1, 2016
A foot long zucchini is well past it's prime, but I usually lose track of one or two in the course of the season and end up with big ones- interesting way of dealing with them.
 
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Alexandra S. September 1, 2016
True! I just measured one that's about the size I've been using, and it's 10 inches, probably also past prime, but this is a good way of using them.
 
PHIL September 1, 2016
i like the smokiness but it might not be for everyone. I usually grill zucchini and drizzle with fresh tomato sauce anyway so I like the idea of adding the ricotta. thanks, will try it out for the holiday weekend.!
 
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Alexandra S. September 1, 2016
I love the smokiness, and I think that flavor will pair so nicely with all of the others here. Happy long weekend!
 
PHIL September 1, 2016
I like this option over eggplant. Also, I think I might grill the zucchini till soft, It is too hot to turn the oven on.
 
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Alexandra S. September 1, 2016
Grilling is a great idea! I've been meaning to try this.