What comes to your mind when you think of Provence? Hills covered with vines and olive trees, perhaps; or purple fields of wind-streaked lavender; wild horses and award-winning bulls roam the Camargue marshes; huge pots of beef stew that simmer gently over a wood fire; market stalls loaded with sun-ripened vegetables and slamming fresh fish …
The setting for Alex Jackson’s culinary tribute to Provence, a small restaurant called Sardine hidden behind the City Road branch of McDonald’s, instead challenges this traditional idyll. But the Sardine menu, which offers typical Provençal delicacies such as aioli, brandade, Nyons olives and Gariguette strawberries, admirably evokes the heat of the south.
Jackson also has a deeply Provencal approach to vegetables. Much of Provence has poor soil, which is suitable for olive trees, vines, and the wild, scrubby grasses that perfume the air in summer, but vegetables need fertile alluvial soils (especially those in both sides of the Rhône) to flourish, and they are treated with respect. Stuffed vegetables – stuffed vegetables – are a particularly Provençal way of treating the bounty of spring and summer: born out of necessity, as a means of using leftover meat on a spit, it has evolved into a ready-made dish. from scratch, using pork, veal and various seasonings to turn a humble zucchini, pepper, tomato or eggplant into the perfect light breakfast.
Jackson decided to focus on Provencal cuisine “because I love Mediterranean cuisine, and Provence has had so many influences from the whole region: it almost feels like another part of Italy”.
Pasta is widely used, as is pistou, the local version of pesto, famous in pesto soup, a kind of Provencal minestrone.
And Jackson’s stuffing for zucchini includes both Parmesan and ricotta, as well as fresh basil. “The Parmesan adds depth to the taste, the fragrant basil and the ricotta – along with the breadcrumbs, the wrung out bread – keep the mixture light: it shouldn’t be heavy.
“I like a mix of veal and pork, but you can just use pork if you want – the beef is too rich and heavy though. If you can persuade your butcher to chop the pancetta or bacon with the meat, all the better: if not, chop it very finely. There should be no lumps in the stuffing.
“It’s basically a very simple recipe: the only difficulty is having the right amount of stuffing for your vegetables, which can be peppers, eggplants or tomatoes, as well as zucchini. And the small vegetables give a better balance between the stuffing and the vegetable itself.
Better, he thinks, to err on the side of generosity with the garnish. “If there is any left over, you can either freeze it or roll it into meatballs: gently fry some garlic and chili with the meatballs, then add a little white wine and passata, and simmer until cooked. “
A thick earthenware baking dish is more suitable for baking stuffed zucchini, but the main thing is to make sure that the vegetables fit tightly in it, so that they bathe in the simmering cream and butter juices: check them during cooking, and add a little water if they seem to dry out. Despite the Provencal’s predilection for olive oil, Jackson puts butter on the zucchini. “It works much better with cream, forming a smooth emulsion, which makes a great sauce.”
Once cooked, zucchini only needs a dollop of creamy tarragon-flavored sauce, a green salad and a piece of crusty bread. And, being a Provencal dish, a bottle of chilled rosé. Of course, as they say in Micawber Street, London N1.
Alex Jackson Stuffed Zucchini Baked with Tarragon and Cream
For 4 people
8 small round zucchini or 4 long zucchini
For the stuffing
20 g of fresh breadcrumbs soaked in milk and squeezed out
100g thinly sliced lean veal
100g of minced fatty pork
30 g of chicken livers, trimmed and very finely chopped
50g unsmoked pancetta or bacon, minced or very finely chopped
30 g crumbled ricotta
20 g grated Parmesan
3g sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons of chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil, plus a basil leaf per zucchini
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh fennel or chervil
1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
For the sauce
50 ml dry white wine
50 ml double cream
6 sprigs of fresh tarragon
1. Preheat the oven to 170 ° C
2. For the round courgettes, cut their tops and set aside; for long zucchini, cut in half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, remove the seeds but leave the flesh.
3. Salt the hollowed-out zucchini and sprinkle with a little olive oil. Roast on a baking sheet until tender (20 to 30 minutes, depending on size). Remove from the oven.
4. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together, then fry a small patty to check the seasoning.
5. Set the oven up to 200 ° C. Place a basil leaf and a slice of garlic in the base of each zucchini, then fill with the stuffing, taking care not to swell the mixture too much. For round zucchini, replace their lids. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Put them well in a roasting pan, then add the wine and enough water so that the zucchini rest in at least 1 cm of liquid. Generously sprinkle the zucchini with butter and roast for 20 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 160 ° C. Add the cream and tarragon to the pan, stirring to combine with the sauce, then return the dish to the oven and cook for another 10 minutes, until the filling is cooked through, the zucchini is golden but not not collapse, and the cream sauce is slightly thickened. Serve hot or warm, topped with the sauce.