Cheese Free Italian? Really?

We have a weakness for Mediterranean foods in my home, and the Americanized versions used to feature heavily in our mealtime rotations.  Pasta, pasta, pasta with tomato sauce, pesto, mushrooms, whatever and plenty of CHEESE please.  And so it was with great curiosity, and more than a little skepticism that I regarded the Raw Zucchini Manicotti on the menu of a fabulous vegetarian restaurant in Asheville.

Vegan and raw manicotti?  Hunh?  It didn’t even make sense to me, but on the recommendation of the diners making fairly obscenely joyful eating noises at the table next door we ordered this odd dish, and (choirs of angels singing here) holy moly it was great.  I described this dish, and the super scene in Asheville at the time and swore to myself, ahem and to you, ahem….. that I would replicate it one day.  That day has come, a mere 7 months later…

Faced with a fridge of zucchini on the edge of spoiling, eggplant that had been sitting far too long, a fresh batch of sunflower cheese, and my friend Somer’s moxerella cheese, I knew it was now or never, well at least not for several more months.  Two Italian dishes without pasta or cheese, coming up.

I started with a dish I’d been thinking about for a while, Eggplant Rollatini.  I turned to my friend Deborah Madison for guidance on this one as I don’t have a lot of eggplant or rollatini experience.  Her version calls for 2 large globe eggplants and about 2 cups of filling – she has several versions of what to fill it with.  I had one medium regular dark purple eggplant (that color STILL gets me) so I decided to follow her quantity advice for filling and use it for both the eggplant and the zucchini dishes.

Dairy Free Eggplant Rollatini

  • 1 medium sized eggplant
  • 1 c cheese type (or cheeze type in this case) filling
  • herbed olive oil for drizzle
  • fresh tomatoes (or leftover tomato sauce) for condiment

I followed Deborah Madison’s basic rollatini procedure.  Cut the eggplant into slices 1/3 inch or less (or they’ll be unrollable).  Sprinkle slices with salt and let stand (to remove some moisture).  Rinse the slices and blot dry. Brown in a warm pan with oil (you could do this a variety of ways).  Don’t worry if they look dry.  Remove from heat.  When cool enough to manage, plop about 2 Tbs of filling in the center and roll it up – secure with toothpick if necessary.  Because my eggplant was not very large, rolling became tucking.  Perhaps I should call mine Eggplant Tuckatini…  These can be stored in a baking dish, in a single layer covered with foil until you are ready to eat (i.e. great make-ahead dish).  When ready, preheat oven to 400 and bake until warm through 20-25 minutes.  Serve with herbed olive oil and tomatoes (or sauce).

Vegan Raw Zucchini Womanicotti (hehe)

  • 2 medium sized zuchhini
  • 1 c filling as above
  • herbed olive oil as above
  • fresh tomatoes as above

This dish has the biggest flavor bang for the effort of any I have every made.  No lie.  It was sublime.  My husband made obscene noises while eating – while that may not appeal to you, it was intended as an indication of high approval.  To prepare the zucchini I used a mandoline (I know AAAGGH you’ll cut your finger off).  I VERY CAREFULLY used a mandoline.  I suppose you could do it by hand, but that would require far greater knife skills than I possess and I am quite sure I would truly cut my finger off then.  At any rate, you want the zucchini cut lengthwise in a thickness that you could conceivably roll.  Lightly salt the zucchini and let it set a while so some of the water comes out – will help with the rolling.  Blot zucchini dry.  Plop an amount that looks sensible in the middle of the roll and wrap the sides around it.  Honestly, I’m not super aesthetically gifted in food prep, so I imagine you could find a way to do this that would create a prettier product, but I was late, we were hungry and the kids were losing it, so there you are.  Drizzle with oil and tomatoes.  Eat and revel in simple amazing yum.

Cheeze Filling

Put in food processor.  Blitz.  Done.  I was tempted to add herbs, and next time I might, but I thought the olive oil would be a safer way to add more flavor while preventing child rebellion due to “little green things in the cheese part.”  It would be yummy with some basil, rosemary or thyme, but it was fabulous just like this.

Herbed Olive Oil

  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • small handful basil

I put these into a blender and made lovely green herby oil, but there’s no reason you couldn’t chop the basil and add it to the oil by hand.

The family verdict?  The eggplant detractors were not convinced, but I enjoyed it.  EVERYONE ate the zucchini.  The adults watched in horror as the children had seconds, limiting our potential scarfing.  Amazing.  I will make MUCH more next time.  I will also be thinking about how to make it appetizer sized.  Delish and for us a delightful reminder of a glorious spring day in the mountains.

Thank you, Thank You Sam I Am

Thank you, thank you Sam I am, because if it weren’t for my willingness to try zucchini again, I would never have been able to eat this for dinner last night. It is zuchinni manicotti from Laughing Seed* in Asheville, NC. It was unbelievable, fantastic, otherworldly. Really, really good. And the funny thing is that the “noodle” in this manicotti, as you may have guessed from the picture is simply very thinly sliced raw zuchinni. I do not like raw zucchini, Sam I am. I will not eat it in a boat. I will not eat it with a goat. I will not eat it and I’m not bashful; I will not eat eat it while I’m in Asheville…. Unless it’s this…. Holy Moly.

It was filled with what I believe was some sort of cashew cream and grated zucchini with pesto. Chunky marinara as a sauce, and drizzled basil infused olive oil. Olives on the plate and a basil garnish, as you can see. It was all raw and while not cold, not heated. I will not eat a cold squash dish; I will not eat it with a catfish. I will not eat it in the mountains; I will not eat it in the fountain… until this dish, which I fully intend to attempt to reproduce at home and will eat in a fountain to amuse you…

In the past, as you may have guessed, I have not been a fan of zucchini, and more recently while having conceded to eating cooked zucchini, I have specifically been an anti-fan of raw zucchini in any form. The interesting lesson for me over the years is that from time to time, one dish that can transform how we feel about a food that we have “always hated.”  I will try it Sam I am.  If you will leave me be, I will try it.  This has happened twice for me with the unlikely zucchini.

My relationship with zucchini began in a more modest preparation than the spectacular raw zucchini manicotti – a baby step that was a bit of a squash revelation for me. If you are not a zucchini fan, you may want to give it a go; if you are, try a new way. As I recall,l I read about this preparation in Cook’s Illustrated and it turned me on to zucchini – and helped me identify what I didn’t like about the veggie as usually cooked. It was the mush. I don’t like sliced sautéed squash because it gets too mushy. So here, we are, another way…

Grate Green Zucchini
I usually prepare at least three average sized zucchini at a time in this way to serve as a side dish. Wash the zukes, cut the ends off. Using the large side of a box grater, grate the little devils almost to the core. Do NOT grate the middle part with the seeds; this is where all the liquid is. Put grated zucchini into a fine strainer or sieve. Add a quarter teaspoon of salt and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Occasionally stir and press down to encourage the liquid to leave.  Give the zucchini one final (and thorough) press from the top. Remove to a towel and squeeze out as much remaining liquid as possible. Warm small amount of olive oil in pan on lower medium heat. Add zucchini to pan and sauté, stirring gently until the green from the skin becomes more vibrant and the flesh is slightly softer. Add salt and pepper to taste. I also like a little lemon with mine. We like ours as a simple side, but it also good mixed into any number of dishes, and added to sandwiches, tortillas, you know how we roll over here. Before you know it, you may be adding sautéed zukes to all kinds of things… and one day, you may even find yourself slicing some paper thin to wrap around some basil cream… Delish!

*For those of you interested in the restaurant, or in vegetarian and vegan cuisine specifically, we also ordered a fantastic seitan curry and the boy had a seitan and hempseed burger. My picky one was delighted to sample the pita pizza. We all enjoyed the dinner immensely, ate at a table outside in the 78 degree sunshine and relished our last evening in North Carolina.