"Besides being cheap and accessible, breadcrumbs are truly a blank canvas for individual creativity."
Verdure Ripieni, or stuffed vegetables, are popular in many of Italy's regions, with varying nods to local ingredients and traditions. Through the ages Italians have always relied on breadcrumbs as an economical and easy way to stretch a few ingredients into something tasty and belly-filling. Although these beauties make a terrific side dish for grilled or roasted meats, they're hearty enough to be a meal on their own.
Besides being cheap and accessible, breadcrumbs are truly a blank canvas for individual creativity. Remember this golden rule for seemingly simple dishes: when working with only a few ingredients, make sure they are top notch, and treat them with the utmost care. There is far less room for error when a dish has only two or three elements.
Homemade breadcrumbs are best, and most Italians insist on making their own. I picked up a small sourdough boule at the farmer's market last weekend for mine. I trimmed the crust just a tiny bit and cut the bread into even-sized cubes, leaving them uncovered for about a day to dry them out, then toasted the cubes until they were slightly brown. After a few batches in the food processor, I had a huge pile of tasty crumbs of variegated gold. If you can't make your own, breadcrumbs from the local bakery are the next best bet. I don't trust supermarket breadcrumbs. Where did they come from, and when were they made?
I could have used full-sized vegetables, but I found some miniature tomatoes and sweet peppers at the farmers' market that inspired a diminutive theme. I cut zucchini into thick rounds, and wedged some sweet Vidalia onions. With a small paring knife, I cut the core out of the onions to create a crater to hold the crumbs. I cut the peppers in half and removed the ribs and seeds, cored the halved tomatoes, and made little cavities in the center of the zucchini rounds.
To finish the vegetable prep, generously grease a baking dish that will snugly hold all the vegetables with extra-virgin olive oil, then arrange the vegetables inside, brushing them with more of the oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
To season 3/4 of a cup of breadcrumbs, I heated three tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. I had some 'nduja from Boccalone in the refrigerator, so I melted about an ounce of that into the oil; you can infuse the oil with minced garlic, or a squirt of anchovy paste, or render some finely chopped pancetta, prosciutto or guanciale in the oil to enrich the crumbs.
I mixed the crumbs with oil, and added a handful of minced, chopped herbs: I used parsley, marjoram, basil and mint from our garden. I also added three minced scallions and a few spoonfuls of grated Pecorino Romano; grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano works too. A few squirts of fresh lemon juice ties all the flavors together.
Cram the crumbs into all the nooks and crannies of the vegetables, and create little mounds on top. It isn't necessary to be neat and fussy since the crumbs that fall between are going to make a delicious "sauce" when it is all done. Store any leftover crumbs in an airtight container in the refrigerator for the next use; they are delicious tossed with al dente pasta and olive oil.
Drizzle over more olive oil over the top, and pour a splash of white wine and enough water into the bottom of the pan to come up about one-third of the depth of the vegetables. Cover the pan with tin foil and bake the vegetables for about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the foil and add a little more water if necessary, and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and the breadcrumbs are toasty on top.
We decided to make a meal out of our verdure ripieni, serving them with herbed rice and a simple salad—a colorful, economical and nutrition-packed meal.