Recently, I was out with a group of moms at a social event for our preschool board and I took it upon myself to order some appetizers for the table. Without asking if anyone was a vegetarian, I ordered some chicken kabobs, and when they arrived, I practically pushed one of the kabobs at the woman sitting next to me, who had not eaten dinner before our get-together. She politely demurred on the grounds that she is a vegetarian. We got to talking, after I apologized for my gaffe, and my friend explained that she had been moving toward a vegan diet over the past few months for health reasons. I was surprised because I think of being vegan as such an extreme position, and this woman is not an extremist at all. But, at the same time, I was intrigued because since we have learned that Zuzu can eat wheat — but still not dairy or egg — we have been trying a lot of vegan baked goods, both homemade and store-bought, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the results. (For example, I whipped up some vegan blueberry pancakes using rice milk and egg replacer the other morning that were delicious.)
There are many good reasons to be a vegetarian, from health to concerns about the environment to strongly held ethical beliefs. Obviously, this is quite a hot topic among foodies, as reflected in the popularity of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I personally find the environmental arguments in favor of vegetarianism quite compelling. Eating lower on the food chain obviously consumes fewer resources. And while I do not believe that eating animals is necessarily immoral, I do share these authors’ concerns about the conditions in which farm animals are kept.
Between Zuzu’s allergies, my husband’s picky eating, and J.R.’s undying love for mac n’ cheese, I do not see my family limiting itself to a vegan or even a vegetarian diet anytime soon. But I have been making a concerted effort to make more vegetarian meals, and since learning about my vegan friend, I have even given some thought to how to modify these recipes to be vegan. In summer, I find it especially easy to make satisfying vegetarian dinners. For one thing, I always start with gazpacho. Follow with a caprese salad, zucchini fritters, pasta con pesto or any one of dozens of other recipes that feature summer favorites like tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant or zucchini, and we do not miss the meat at all.
Zucchini happens to be one of the most popular veggies in my house. Its mild flavor and versatility make it a hit with kids and picky husbands alike. Plus, this time of year, people practically give it away. We like grilled zucchini, zucchini pancakes, zucchini bread — I even have a recipe for a chocolate zucchini cake, which has surprised some picky husbands I know. Recently I came across some county fair blue-ribbon sized zucchini at the Oak Park farmers’ market selling for some absurdly low price like $.50 each, and I thought that they would be perfect for making stuffed zucchini. I went home and came up with a recipe using one of Zuzu’s new favorite wheat-based foods, cous-cous. I did top some of the stuffed zucchini with cheese, but I omitted the cheese on the two zucchini halves destined for Zuzu, and it was still quite tasty and satisfying. So, this recipe can be either vegetarian (with cheese) or vegan (no cheese). Or, forego the whole debate and serve these zucchini as a side dish next to your favorite grilled meat.
Zucchini Stuffed with Cous-Cous
Serves 3-4 as a main course. Serves 6 as a side dish.
3 large zucchini, ends trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz. can chopped tomatoes
3/4 cup instant dried cous-cous, like that made by Near East brand
Extra-virgin olive oil
Dried basil, oregano and red pepper flakes*
Salt and pepper, to taste
Shredded mozzarella and grated Parmesan (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and saute the onion and garlic over medium-low heat until translucent. Meanwhile, scoop the flesh out of the center of the zucchini halves using a melon baller or other small spoon leaving the sides and the ends intact. Dice the zucchini flesh and add it to the onion and garlic. Season well with oregano, basil, red pepper flakes (using less if you do not like your food a bit spicy), salt and pepper. Once the veggies are soft — after 10 minutes or so — add the crushed tomatoes. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and keep the vegetables at a simmer until the tomato sauce has thickened. Meanwhile, prepare the cous-cous according to the directions on the box. (Remember if you are serving this to vegetarians or vegans, cook the cous-cous in water or vegetable broth, not chicken broth.) Fluff the cous-cous with a fork and then add it to the tomato sauce and mix well.
Fill the hollowed-out zucchini halves with the cous-cous and tomato mixture. The mixture will not spread during baking, so feel free to pile it high. Top with shredded cheese, if you like. Bake for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of your zucchini, until the zucchini halves are tender. Serve.
*Feel free to replace the basil and oregano with cumin and coriander to change this dish from Italian to North African. This works particularly well if you are omitting the cheese.