The first wave of summer zucchini is breaking over the horizon. It is not yet an imminent threat. We have a few days, perhaps one or two weeks, before the full force of the onslaught reaches us. But the first green glimmers of the tsunami to come are visible in the distance.
After three years of hard experience, I now realize that the key to avoiding a kitchen full of giant zucchini, rolling around on my counters and crushing plates and fingers, is to pick them now, when they are smallish, young and tender. So far, I have cooked them by slicing them crosswise and sauteing them in butter, but I’m going to have to get more creative. I have three medium zucchini on my counter now and I need a recipe that will finish them off in one fell swoop before they realize they have the upper hand.
Recently I had a dish made with zoodles, or zucchini noodles, in place of pasta. It was scrumptious and I imagine it was healthy-ish, although the zoodles were awash in butter and perhaps that’s why it tasted so good. However, I don’t have a spiralizer, which is the kitchen gadget you need to turn zucchini into spaghetti-like noodles, so homemade zoodles are a no-go for me. Then I saw a recipe for zucchini manicotti in which wide zucchini slices are wrapped around a filling of ricotta and spinach, nestled in marinara sauce, sprinkled with mozzarella and baked until the cheese is bubbly and browned. Zucchini takes the place of manicotti or cannelloni, the super-sized pasta tubes normally served in this dish. (If you’re wondering about the difference between manicotti and cannelloni, it’s fairly minimal. Manicotti is slightly larger and textured with ridges, while cannelloni is slightly smaller and smooth.)
The wide zucchini ribbons are made by slicing the zucchini lengthwise with an implement called a mandolin. I don’t technically have a mandolin (which, for safety’s sake, comes with a gripper and steel mesh gloves to keep you from making zoodles out of your fingers) but I do have a wide-slice feature on my handheld grater. What could go wrong?
Well, my fingers are intact, but the ribbons came out all wonky. I blame the zucchini, of course. Fresh from my garden, they grew into odd shapes with a twisted neck here, an odd curve there, wide on one end and slender on the other. No two ribbons were exactly the same size and shape, which is what I needed in order to wrap the filling neatly and avoid making a monumental mess. I scrapped the manicotti and instead decided to make zucchini lasagna, where the zucchini ribbons take the place of lasagna noodles.
I set my mangled zucchini lasagna — zucchagna? lasini? — aside and started on the spinach and ricotta filling. I sauteed a 6-ounce bag of fresh (not frozen) spinach in a scant tablespoon of olive oil and a dash of salt. It only took a few minutes for the spinach leaves to become tender and reduce in size to about a cup. I scooped the spinach into a bowl with 2 cups of ricotta, 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon zest, two cloves of garlic that I mashed in a garlic press, ¼ cup chopped fresh basil and ¼ teaspoon salt. I added one egg and stirred everything together until it was thoroughly mixed.
I spread a third of a 24-ounce jar of marinara sauce in the bottom of a three-quart rectangular baking dish, then covered the sauce with a layer of my most misshapen zucchini ribbons. On top of that, I spread half the ricotta mixture, then sprinkled it with 1/3 cup mozzarella cheese. Next, I added another layer of zucchini ribbons, another third of the marinara sauce, and another 1/3 cup mozzarella. Then I added another layer of zucchini, the remaining half of the ricotta mixture and 1/3 cup mozzarella. I saved my best-looking zucchini ribbons for the top layer, which I covered in the remaining marinara sauce sprinkled with another cup of mozzarella and ¼ cup shredded Parmesan. Then I put the whole pan in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.
Here’s a quick rundown of the structure, starting from the bottom up: Marinara sauce, zucchini, ricotta, cheese, zucchini, marinara sauce, cheese, zucchini, ricotta, cheese, zucchini, marinara sauce, cheese. That’s four layers of zucchini, three layers of marinara sauce and two layers of ricotta.
It looked mighty pretty when I took it out of the oven, with bubbling sauce and browning cheese. It was a vegetarian masterpiece, although the point here was not to avoid meat but instead to eat as much zucchini as possible. I let it cool for a good 20 minutes, garnished it with extra basil leaves and sliced it into squares, just like lasagna. I feared it would fall to pieces when I tried to remove it from the pan, but it held together respectably. I was also worried that the zucchini might be uncooked inside, but 40 minutes was just the ticket for tender zucchini. The biggest difference between zucchini lasagna and pasta lasagna is that lasagna noodles absorb liquid while they’re cooking, whereas zucchini, with its high water content, releases liquid. It was perhaps leakier than an ideal lasagna but not so flooded that it couldn’t keep its shape.
My husband and daughter both enjoyed it and I was pleasantly surprised. It was not a disaster! In fact, it was good enough that I’d serve it for company. My daughter’s only comment was that the lemony flavor from the zest was perhaps too pronounced, although I couldn’t detect a strong citrus note. However, you may want to omit the lemon zest if you’re concerned about over-lemonification.
So now you have at least one zuke-centric family recipe at hand when it comes time to eat zucchini every day. Go forth confidently to face the oncoming green wave. Be brave, be resolute and don’t be afraid to sneak baskets of zucchini onto your neighbor’s property. All’s fair in love and excess zucchini distribution.
1 24-ounce jar marinara sauce
1 6-ounce bag washed spinach leaves
3 medium zucchini or 4 small zucchini, peels on, sliced top to bottom into wide ribbons
2 cups ricotta cheese
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon lemon zest
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup shredded fresh basil, plus several whole leaves for garnish
2 cups grated mozzarella
¼ cup shredded Parmesan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a mandolin, slice three medium zucchini top to bottom into wide ribbons. Saute spinach in 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt until spinach is wilted. Scoop spinach into a bowl with ricotta, basil, minced garlic (or smashed through a garlic press), lemon zest, salt and egg. Mix well and set aside. Spread a third of the jar of marinara sauce over the bottom of a three-quart rectangular baking dish. Cover with a layer of zucchini ribbons. Spread ½ of the ricotta mixture over the ribbons and sprinkle with ⅓ cup mozzarella cheese. Add another layer of zucchini ribbons and top with another third of the marinara sauce. Sprinkle with ⅓ cup mozzarella. Add another layer of zucchini ribbons and top with the remaining half of ricotta mixture. Sprinkle with ⅓ cup mozzarella. Add a final layer of zucchini ribbons and top with remaining third of marinara sauce. Sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella and ¼ cup shredded Parmesan. Bake in oven for 40 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for 20 minutes before serving.