Gourmet thrill seekers on the hunt for exotic fruits and vegetables in Argentina aren't likely to encounter much more than disappointment. A trip to the greengrocer yields the expected, run-of-the-mill selection with which we're all familiar: peppers, onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and corn, among others. The only rare item that consistently turns up at our local supermarket is a young American woman who wanders the produce aisle in search of strange-looking fruits and vegetables…
Despite the lack of head-turning produce, one veggie that did catch me off guard the first time I spotted it was the zapallito. Also known as zapallito de tronco or zapallito redondo, this native of South America is actually a summer squash with a taste and texture very similar to zucchini. I've always been a fan of long zucchini, but I must say that I prefer zapallitos for the simple fact that their size and shape make them more versatile. Here in Argentina, they frequently appear in savory tarts and tortillas (Spanish-style omelettes) or breaded and fried as milanesas, but more often than not, they're carved in half and stuffed.
Some cooks choose to stuff the zapallitos with a ground beef mixture. I've tried them this way, and they are tasty; however, I find I like them best when they're filled with a mix of vegetables and cheese. Besides, in the land where red meat almost invariably takes center stage at the dinner table, it's nice to partake in some lighter yet appetizing fare now and again.
As an amusing side note, when I first moved here I had a tendency to confuse the words "zapallitos" and "zapatillas." On more than one occasion, I gushed to Daniel's family about how delicious the "sneakers" tasted. Thankfully, I quickly learned to stop referring to my dinner as athletic footwear.
At the market, look for firm zapallitos with smooth, glossy, and unblemished skin, and select ones that are all roughly the same size to ensure uniform cooking. Since zapallitos are rather difficult to source outside of this region, try substituting globe, round, or 'Eight Ball' zucchini.
Zapallitos rellenos work well as either a side dish or a vegetarian main course with a salad and some crusty bread. The recipe is flexible and perfect for experimentation, so feel free to add some herbs or diced ham, as is often done.
Stuffed Round Zucchini | Zapallitos Rellenos
Makes 8 servings
4 medium zapallitos
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
¾ c. chopped red pepper
¾ c. chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
generous pinch of ají molido [substitute crushed red pepper flakes]
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ c. shredded parmesan cheese [reserve ¼ c. for topping]
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbsp. plain breadcrumbs
In a large pot filled with salted water, boil the zapallitos until tender but still able to hold their shape, approximately 12-14 minutes. Transfer the zapallitos to a plate, and allow them to cool enough to handle. Once cooled, slice them in half horizontally and run a knife around the inside edge of each half, about ¼-inch from the skin, to loosen the pulp. Scoop out the pulp with a spoon, leaving the zapallito shells. Chop the pulp, drain the liquid, and reserve the pulp for later. Once hollowed out, place the shells upside-down on the plate to allow excess liquid to drain.
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the red pepper, onion and a pinch of salt to the skillet, and sauté until tender and lightly browned. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute or until fragrant, stirring frequently. Add the reserved zapallito pulp, and sauté 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, and season the mixture with ají molido, salt and pepper to taste. Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes, and then add ¼ cup of cheese, parsley, egg and breadcrumbs. Mix thoroughly to combine.
Place the zapallito shells on a lightly greased baking sheet, and fill them evenly with the vegetable mixture. Top each stuffed zapallito with a sprinkle of the remaining ¼ cup of cheese.
Bake in an oven preheated to 400ºF for approximately 20-22 minutes, or until cheese is lightly browned. Serve immediately.
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