Well, the zucchini are from upstate New York, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Did I ever mention that my grandparents were subjects of the Ottoman Empire? They left the Middle East in the 1920s, so I guess they would have carried passports from the Palestinian Mandate, but still, a fun idea to imagine myself wearing a fez.
I never really got a good bead on exactly where our family was from. They lived for generations in Akko in what is now Israel, but their self-described ethnicity seemed to change with the angle of the sun: sometimes Palestinian, sometimes Lebanese, sometimes even Egyptian.
There may be something to that last one: once at the Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, they had a two way mirror that showed your face augmented with Egyptian features and makeup. Mom looked in and shrugged, “yeah, it’s a mirror.”
Anyhoo, this rather fluid approach to ethnicity let us get away with a lot of stuff, like messing around with classic recipes. If anyone started getting culinarily dogmatic, we could just claim regional variation.
We always used to eat stuffed squash as kids. Stuffed koosa in particular. You always knew an Arab family because they had a little patch of these larger, white zucchini growing in the backyard. They also had a koosa corer in the kitchen drawer, usually just a piece of copper pipe cut at a bias, but it did the job.
But there were certain things I never cared for in that dish. Mostly I thought that the squash was too watery, which seemed like a bad texture combination with the meat and rice filling. Also, that same filling is in everything, and you know what they say about familiarity…
So this recipe is a bit of a tweak on the classic. We test ran it tonight, and boy did it ever fly. We used a much higher concentration of meat, switched out rice for lentils and bulghur wheat, skipped the onion altogether, and took the squash off the stove, instead using a combination of baking and broiler to concentrate the tastes and firm up the vegetables. The result was a much firmer, more flavorful and more meaty dish.
I hope you like it.
Cut the ends off of 3 large zucchini. (They have to be at least 1 1/2 inches wide to work.) Slice in half, and scoop out insides. A melon baller or small teaspoon would work well for this. Be careful not to poke through the bottom or sides. Set aside.
– 1 pound ground beef (or lamb, if you feel fancy),
– 3/4 cup bulghur wheat,
– 3/4 cup red (shelled) lentils,
– 1 tsp cumin,
– 1 tbs garlic powder,
– 1 tbs allspice,
– dash of white pepper,
– 3 tbs good olive oil and
– salt to taste.
Stuff as much of the filling as you can into the hollowed out zucchinis. The wheat doesn’t expand much, so you don’t have to worry about overfilling.
Fry the remaining meat mixture with the leftover zucchini guts on low heat in an ovenproof pan. While this is cooking, add:
– 3 tbs olive oil
– 1 tbs turmeric,
– 1 tbs allspice,
– 1 tbs garlic powder
When the stovetop mixture is more or less blended (no need to brown), remove from heat and arrange the six stuffed zucchini on top, pressing them down in to the meat mixture. Add one large can of crushed tomatoes and enough water (1/2 cup or so) to just bring the level up to the top of the zucchini. Don’t combine the tomatoes and the meat mixture. We want those tomatoes to cook down.
Cover and bake in 350 degree oven. After one hour, remove lid and turn the zucchini in the sauce. Return to oven and bake for another hour uncovered, until the sauce has cooked down considerably. We added ten minutes under a high broiler to brown the top, and really get that baked flavor.
Serve with the tomatoes and meat mixture — it won’t be a sauce. The zucchinis will be very hot, and quite firm. Usually these squash are fork tender, but these may need a knife.