I, like many others, am buried alive by garden zucchini, and it has reached the point where we can’t give them away fast enough. I am getting the feeling friends and neighbors are closing their curtains and locking their doors when they see me appear with my little bag of garden treats in hand. Add to the fact that while deliriously happy to see our first cherry tomato appear, I began to avert my eyes and guiltily ignore the little guys when the big tomatoes began to ripen. A person can handle only so much guilt, so this recipe was designed to alleviate any that was associated with excessive garden production. The cherry tomatoes are picked, halved and quickly sautéed to develop rich flavor and to drive off excess moisture. The zucchini are thinly sliced lengthwise, baked for a few minutes just to soften, formed into spirals and set down in that fresh tomato sauce. After that, a rich, cheesy filling is spooned into the center of the spiral…top the whole business with a little more tomato sauce, cheese, and buttered breadcrumbs for crunch. Rich, satisfying, remarkably good for you, and fun to make. Besides that, I can now look those cherry tomatoes in the eye again.
This recipe is one of those where I got a picture in my mind of what it would look like long before I tried to figure out how to go about such a thing. Let’s just say that what you see here is the result of a long list of trial and error, mostly because I was attempting to get away with not pre-baking the zucchini. Note to self: Zucchini will not be in the mood to roll up when it is raw, no matter how much cussing you do in its direction. The compromise of pre-baking for about 15 minutes does the trick though, and that hard to handle zucchini noodle is as easy as pie to work with. Lesson #2: If you attempt to fill your little zucchini ‘nests’ by putting the filling down on a flat slice of zucchini and rolling it up, you will be very angry because it will not behave and run out the sides. This is why we are going to set them all up in the pan, and then spoon the filling inside. There…I have confessed. And now it’s time to get over myself and let you know how much fun this really is! Once you get that zucchini sliced and baked, all you need to do is wrap the slices around your finger and create a little nest that you set right in that cherry tomato sauce. Spoon in the filling, top it with some breadcrumbs and maybe a little more cheese and you are good to go.
The filling is made with ricotta, mozzarella, chopped spinach and a couple of eggs. It sets up beautifully in it’s little zucchini nests, and almost has a custardy consistency. I was surprised that I didn’t miss the regular lasagna noodles at all since I am a major pasta freak. The zucchini does a nice job of standing in for the lasagna noodles, and makes this hearty enough to serve as a main dish. Check it out…the zucchini, tomatoes, and filling give up a little liquid into the bottom of the pan, and I freaked out when I first saw it because I thought it would wreck everything. I almost reached for the Tums, but, another big shocker…it tasted delicious!
You can add a little freshness to this guy by adding some pesto to the top, right before serving. Here’s a link to the pesto recipe we make in our house every year if you happen to be in the mood for such a thing.
Hope you enjoy this one, and thanks so much for reading today. Happy Harvest!! xoxoxo
- FOR THE CHERRY TOMATO SAUCE
- Approximately 3-4 cups cherry tomatoes, rinsed and halved
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil of your choice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- FOR THE ZUCCHINI NOODLES
- 4-5 and maybe 6 zucchini (green, yellow, or striped) The important thing is to choose zucchini that are in the neighborhood of about 2-3 inches in diameter and 7-8 inches long.
- 1-2 tablespoons cooking oil of your choice
- Salt to sprinkle on before baking
- FOR THE LASAGNA FILLING
- 2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese (NOTE: This is the time to buy the good stuff. Be sure to check the ingredients label on the container, and look for the product that contains milk, cream, and salt only. If you buy the stuff that has fillers or thickeners, your end result will taste chalky and gritty, and that is not a good thing).
- 1 to 1 ½ cups grated mozzarella cheese (not fresh mozzarella because it is to ‘wet’).
- Either 1-2 bunches of fresh spinach or 1 box of frozen and thawed spinach
- 2 eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- FOR THE BUTTERED BREADCRUMBS (Optional but adds a nice crunch)
- 1-2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (This will take 4-6 slices of white bread, crusts removed)
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- FOR THE CHERRY TOMATO SAUCE
- Add the oil to a skillet and heat to medium high.
- Add the cherry tomatoes and salt, and sauté until most of the liquid has evaporated from the tomatoes.
- Set aside.
- FOR THE ZUCCHINI NOODLES
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Cut the stem and blossom ends off of the zucchini.
- BEING VERY CAREFUL…Thinly slice the zucchini lengthwise into no thicker than ¼ inch slices. PLEASE use a very sharp knife and keep your eye on that knife. Go slowly and everything will be just fine. NOTE: If you have one of those mandolins (the slicer, not the musical instrument), that will also work just fine but, one more time, BE CAREFUL. The last time I made this I used a mandolin and am still wearing the bandage on my finger after dumbly thinking I could get one more slice out of it without using the hand guard. Such was not the case. You are going to want to end up with between 25-30 slices.
- Line a baking sheet with foil and spray well with cooking spray.
- Lay the zucchini down in one layer on the sheet (you’ll need more than one pan or to make a couple of batches)
- Spray or drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes or until softened.
- Remove from oven and set aside.
- FOR THE LASAGNA FILLING
- Let’s start with the spinach. If you are using frozen and thawed spinach, just squeeze all the liquid you can out of the thawed spinach, and you’re done. If you are using fresh spinach; Make sure it is well washed and all the and grit is off of it, then remove from the washing water and quick sauté in a skillet set over medium high heat just until the spinach softens. You can sauté one handful of spinach first, sprinkle with salt, then add the next handful, soften, season, etc. Keep doing this until all of the spinach is softened. Remove from heat and let it cool enough to handle, then squeeze the living daylights out of all the moisture in the spinach. Get out a big chef’s knife and chop it up into fairly small pieces.
- Then…Spoon the ricotta into a medium sized bowl. Add the eggs and mozzarella cheese. Gently stir in the chopped spinach and season with salt and pepper.
- FOR THE BUTTERED BREADCRUMBS
- Tear the fresh bread into pieces and pulse in a food processor until fine crumbs form. If you don’t have a food processor, tear the bread into pieces and then chop those pieces up as finely as you can with a large knife.
- Melt the butter in a small baking dish. Add the breadcrumbs and toss to make sure all the bread has a nice coating of butter. Bake in a 350-degree oven until the crumbs have dried out and are beginning to brown. Then remove from the oven and set aside.
- TO ASSEMBLE
- You can use a cast iron 12-inch skillet or a 9x9 inch baking dish to pull this off.
- Oil your skillet or baking dish well. Add ¾ of the tomato sauce to the bottom of the skillet or baking dish.
- OK…this part will take a little patience and practice, but you’ll get the hang of it in no time. Grab one of the zucchini ‘noodles’ and loosely wrap it around your finger, leaving a 1 inch or so open circle in the middle of the zucchini where your finger was, forming a little nest. Set the zucchini nest in the sauce, open side up. Repeat until you’ve used all your noodles.
- Next, get your filling out, and using a fairly narrow spoon, spoon as much filling as you can into each zucchini nest. You can go right up to the top but try not to go over if you can help it. Repeat until all of the nests are full of filling.
- Dot the top of the dish with the remaining cherry tomato sauce, and sprinkle with some parmesan cheese.
- Sprinkle the top with the buttered breadcrumbs, and pop into the oven.
- Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. The zucchini and filling will give up some liquid in the cooking process, and you should see this bubbling around the corners of the pan. The cheese mixture in the zucchini nests should appear set.
- Remove from oven and let this little beauty set up for 10 minutes or so before diving in.