The first time I laid eyes on an 8-ball zucchini, I was intrigued. Its forest green skin with pale green striations is quite pretty, but the summer squash’s most fascinating characteristic is its almost perfectly round shape.
Though named after the little black pool ball (as in pocket billiards, not swimming pool), this novel produce is similar in size to a softball. The inner flesh is creamy white with light green hues around the edges, and its nutty, buttery flavor is much like the classic green zucchini. More recently, yellow-skinned versions that are slightly more oblong have been popping up, too.
Just like other members of the summer squash family, 8-ball zucchinis can be sliced and then steamed, grilled, or sautéed. However, this orb-like veggie is especially well suited to stuffing, and the following recipe has become a seasonal favorite in our house over the last few years as availability has expanded from the occasional farm market to include most large grocery stores.
In fact, when I called a variety of local grocery stores, all reported that the 8-balls were currently in stock or on their way. Brook Lawn Farm Market on Lititz Pike and Lancaster Central Market have been consistent suppliers, too. In fact, I shared this recipe with my friends at Brook Lawn several years ago because many of their customers were wondering how to use these curiously round vegetables. *
As an option, 8-ball zucchini may be hollowed out from the top and stuffed whole. I do prefer to cut them in half, which allows for what I think is the perfect ratio of filling to squash. The following serving option creates a satisfying meal all by itself but is also delicious served alongside corn on the cob, a platter of sliced tomatoes, and/or your favorite green vegetable or tossed salad.
Yields 8 servings.
- 4 softball-size 8-ball zucchini (see above comments for substitutes)
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1/2 a bell pepper, diced (use color of choice)
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 teaspoon all-natural Montreal Steak seasoning (see notes)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt and a few grinds of the pepper mill
- 1 cup cooked brown rice (from 1/3 cup uncooked; may use white and/or leftover rice)
- 1 cup tomato sauce (plus more for topping, if desired)
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (plus more Parmesan and/or cheese of choice for topping, if desired)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise (stem to bottom). Using a teaspoon or melon baller, scoop out and discard the zucchini flesh and seeds, leaving a 1/2-inch of flesh attached to the skin. If the zucchini are wobbly, cut a thin slice off the bottom to make them stand up.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, and sauté the chopped onion until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef to the pan, and cook until starting to brown. When the meat is about half cooked, add the bell pepper along with the seasoning blend, salt and pepper. Stir and continue to cook until the meat is fully browned, breaking it into small pieces with your spoon or spatula.
Remove from the heat, and stir in the rice, tomato sauce, and Parmesan cheese.
Choose a baking dish that is just big enough to hold the zucchini, and lightly grease it. Stuff the zucchini with the beef mixture, and top with a little extra tomato sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan.
Place the zucchini in the baking dish and roast, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes or until the shells are crisp-tender and the filling is hot. After about 20 minutes of baking, I poke the zucchini with a sharp knife, and if the knife doesn’t slide in fairly easily, I bake them for a few minutes more. At this point, I occasionally sprinkle the zucchini with some grated sharp cheddar or mozzarella cheese and bake 2 to 3 minutes more or until the cheese is melted.
- I typically use a sodium-free variety of Montreal Steak seasoning. If you use a blend with salt, you may wish to slightly reduce the added salt and adjust to taste before stuffing the zucchini.
- When available, I like to stir in a mixture (1/3 cup or so) of fresh herbs after sautéing the beef. Parsley, thyme, basil, chives, oregano, and dill are all nice options. When including more potent herbs (like oregano, rosemary, tarragon), limit their use to a tablespoon or so each.
- Ground sausage is a good option to the ground beef and other vegetables, such as sautéed chopped mushrooms, may be added as well.
* An interesting footnote: From a culinary standpoint, zucchini is usually treated as and considered a vegetable. Botanically, however, zucchini is a fruit, being the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower. (Source: Wikipedia)
If 8-ball zucchini are not available, you may absolutely substitute regular zucchini, summer squash, or even bell peppers.
An early photo… We were at my in-laws’ cabin in the Poconos where she has a set of fun fishing lure plates. : )
For a deliciously easy side dish, you may enjoy this Corn and Cucumber Salad with Basil and Chives.