Eric Akis: Dress up zucchini with 'real' parmesan cheese

Eric Akis

When my wife and I were first courting, we’d cook and introduce each other to dishes we liked to eat. One she first prepared for me was stuffed zucchini.

When she did, with an interest in seeing our relationship continue to flourish, I didn’t mention that I wasn’t a fan of zucchini. But after that I meal I learned that if you dress it up, by stuffing it with a rich filling, zucchini can be pretty appetizing.

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Over the years, I learned of other ways zucchini can reach those heights and my current favourite is zucchini Parmesan. To make it, sliced zucchini is coated in a cheese-rich, breadcrumb mixture, cooked in olive oil, and then baked on passata di pomodoro with other touches, until bubbly and delicious.

What makes it extra special is the type of cheese used in the coating, Parmigiano-Reggiano, often called the “king of cheeses.”

Others call it “real” Parmesan cheese because it’s been made for eons following strict guidelines and time-honoured traditions all under the watchful eye of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, the organization that monitors the making of the cheese and puts their stamp of approval on each wheel produced.

The cheese is named after Parma and Reggio Emilia — northern Italian provinces in the Emilia-Romagna region, where Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced and the rich cow’s milk used to make it comes from.

I don’t have room to go through the many steps required to make the cheese, but if you’re curious, you can learn all about the process on the Consorzio’s website, parmigianoreggiano.com.

In very brief, though, after the wheels of cheese are formed, they must be aged a minimum of 12 months, although the average maturation period is 24 months. The cheese can also aged be much longer than that.

As it ages, the proteins in the milk break down and the cheese develops its distinctive, somewhat granular texture, slightly sweet, nutty, amazing flavour and almost fruity aroma.

It’s a fabulous thing and you’ll find pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano for sale at many grocery stores and at Italian/Mediterranean food stores. With all the time and effort needed to make it, the cheese is not inexpensive, with the place I bought it from charging $6.99 per hundred grams.

In stores you’ll also find cheese simply labelled “Parmesan.” These cheeses, made in Canada and other countries, are called that because they somewhat resemble Parmigiano-Reggiano. You’ll also find containers and bags of grated and shredded Parmesan cheese.

Some of them are OK, some are pretty terrible, especially some of the grated types of Parmesan which contain cellulose powder to prevent caking and the chemical preservative potassium sorbate.

Those cheeses are cheaper than Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is why some gravitate toward them. But when you grate even a small piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano with a Microplane or other fine grater you’ll end up with a lovely mound of delectable cheese that I find is well worth the cost.

If you’ve not tried Parmigiano-Reggiano, the next time you need Parmesan cheese buy a small piece and compare it to the type you currently use. If you find it makes the dish much more divine, you’ll know it’s the cheese for you.

Zucchini Parmesan with Mini Bocconcini

Cheese-rich, breaded, browned slices of zucchini baked on passata di pomodoro until piping hot and delicious. You could serve the zucchini with pasta, polenta or risotto.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 26 to 28 minutes

Makes: two to three servings

3/4 cup panko (see Note)

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus some for sprinkling

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/8 tsp garlic powder

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 large egg beaten with 1 Tbsp milk

12 (1/2-inch thick, about 1 3/4-inch wide) zucchini slices (see Note)

3 to 4 Tbsp olive oil

1 cup passata di pomodoro (see Note)

2 Tbsp water

12 mini bocconcini

Set out a baking sheet. Combine the panko, 1/3 cup grated cheese, oregano, basil, garlic powder, salt and pepper in a shallow, sided dish. Place the flour in a second shallow dish and the beaten egg mixture in a third.

Evenly coat a zucchini slice with flour, shaking off the excess. Coat the zucchini in the egg mixture, ensuring it’s evenly coated and no bits of flour are visible. Now coat the zucchini in the panko mixture, firmly pressing it on. Set the coated zucchini on the baking sheet. Coat the rest of the zucchini in this fashion, setting them on the baking sheet, not touching, as you go along.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Heat the oil in a 10-inch cast iron or other ovenproof skillet set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry the coated zucchini slices, in two batches, about 90 seconds to two minutes per side, until golden brown. Set the browned slices of zucchini back on the baking sheet.

Drain excess oil from the skillet and wipe clean. Pour in the passata di pomodoro and water and mix to combine. Set in the zucchini, leaving a space in between each one. Disperse the mini bocconcini around the zucchini. Now sprinkle everything with some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste.

Bake the zucchini, uncovered, about 20 minutes, or until piping hot and bubbling.

Note: Panko are coarse breadcrumbs sold at most supermarkets. Passata di pomodoro is sold in tall bottles at Italian-style food stores and at most supermarkets. It’s also known as strained tomatoes, because to make it, crushed tomatoes are passed through a sieve, creating a smooth, versatile sauce. One medium zucchini should yield the slices needed here.

Eric options: If you don’t have an ovenproof skillet, pour the passata di pomodoro into an eight-inch square pan. Brown the coated zucchini slices in a regular skillet. When all are fried, set them on the passata in the pan and then bake as described in the recipe.

If desired, just before serving, you could sprinkle the zucchini with some chopped fresh parsley or thinly sliced fresh basil.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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