Roasted Zucchini with Lentils and Quinoa Stew Filling
This dish is inspired by the long summer vacations I used to have as a child; those three months and a half out of school, from June until the beginning of October – traditionally school would start after San Francis Day, October 4, and go on with few interruptions until mid-June.
Blistering hot days in the city would be followed by beautiful long days at the beach in one of the seaside villages near Rome, where the luckiest kids would get to spend a month or two with parents and often grandparents, aunts or other family members, alternating with each other in the spare room to get some relief from the unforgiving heat in the city.
The food would be simple (for Italian standards), summery, and mostly vegetable-based, given the bounty of produce you could get each morning for a very reasonable price at the tiny local market, not more than a few stalls of local producers living just a couple of miles inland. Useless to say it was divine.
Zucchinis are a typical summer staple to me; together with eggplant and red pepper they form the holy trinity of vegetables, declined in all possible forms and shapes and combinations of flavors.
At that time, I had never heard about quinoa, which is definitely a very recent and welcomed addition to our diets given the undoubtedly great nutrients it provides: fiber, iron, proteins.
Lentils on the contrary have always been one of my preferred legumes and I discovered only much later that lentils also happen to be extremely nutritious and healthy, packed with proteins, iron, vitamins B and fibers, rich in polyphenols, and of course very affordable and filling. Italy produces one of the best varieties in the world: Lenticchie di Castelluccio di Norcia, they grow on a spectacular plain at 1,500 meters of altitude, inside a National Park in the Umbria region; cultivated there since centuries in the same traditional way, without use of pesticides or fertilizers, they are very tiny and tender. If you cannot find them opt for green lentils, generally small in size, which keep their bite after cooking, like the French variety “Lentilles de Puy”.
So, I thought to use these ingredients to modernize the more traditional ground veal and pork stuffed zucchini and make instead a kind of lentils-quinoa stew to fill the nice hollow rounds of zucchini. The same filling could be used for other vegetables as well, or just be eaten by itself. Don’t worry if you make too much, it will make a delicious snack on its own or added to a green salad.
By the way this dish also happens to be vegan, like so many other Italian vegetables-based recipes, that only use EV Olive Oil as fat.
For 4 portions – as a main dish
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 large yellow onion
3 cups of marinara sauce*
½ cup dry quinoa, cooked following directions
1 cup fancy green lentils – the smallest kind
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Oregano, Salt and Pepper, Crushed Hot Pepper Flakes as desired
1. Rinse the lentils, put them in a pot, cover them with water (approximately 2 ½ cups), add a pinch of salt, cover and bring to boil. Let it simmer for approximately 20 to 25 minutes, checking regularly that there is still enough water. When the lentils are soft but still with a bite, remove and drain excess water to prevent further cooking.
2. Cook the quinoa in boiling lightly salted water for 15 minutes, drain.
3. Slice the onion, put it in a large nonstick pan, add a couple of tablespoons of water, drizzle with EVOO, let it simmer until completely soft and golden in color, stirring regularly to avoid sticking, approximately 20-25 minutes.
4. In the meantime, rinse the zucchini, cut in slices of approximately 1 inch.
5. With a metal spoon, gently remove from each slice the center of the zucchini without piercing the base. I use a measuring spoon, teaspoon size, it is perfect. You can use the removed part of the zucchini for a different dish.
6. When the onion is cooked, add the marinara sauce, add the garlic, let it go on a high flame for approximately 10-12 more minutes, until very thick and dry, stirring regularly. Add crashed red pepper if you like, oregano and salt and pepper. Set the marinara sauce aside, except for one cup approximately.
7. Mix the cooked lentils and quinoa to the remaining marinara sauce. Gently stir on the stove, adjust with salt and pepper, let it come nicely together for 5 more minutes. Adjust condiments.
8. Cover the bottom of an ovenproof ceramic or glass dish with the set-aside marinara sauce. Dispose the zucchini circles on top of it, starting from the center of the dish.
9. Fill the zucchini with the mix of lentils and quinoa.
10. Drizzle with oil, cover with foil, and let it cook in the oven for 45-50 minutes at 360F.
11. Check regularly to make sure there is enough liquid. If the tomato sauce is drying up too fast, add a couple of tablespoons of water at the time.
12. Remove from the oven when the zucchinis look soft and cooked, serve hot.
A Few Notes:
- If you are lucky enough to have young zucchini (maybe you grow your own?), noticeably smaller, you can cut them in the other direction to fill.
- Lentils: make the effort to find green lentils: they are tiny, they keep their bite after cooking, they are more flavorful.
- For a fancy looking dish: use black lentils, also called Beluga lentils, that also keep their texture after cooking.
- Please do not buy marinara sauce: it is so simple to make! Just use an excellent quality tomato puree or passata, add one or two whole garlic cloves, a couple of leaves of fresh basil, salt and pepper and EV olive oil, and let it simmer for 15-20 minutes. That’s it!!
Elisabetta Ciardullo is the founder of Think Italian! Events. As Personal Chef she is an ambassador of the Italian cuisine and culture, bringing it into the private homes of Americans, as well as to many corporate clients in Los Angeles.