These zucchini involtini are a delicious combination of grilled zucchini wrapped around a basil and lemon seasoned ricotta filling, nestled in marinara sauce. It's surprisingly light, comforting and incredibly tasty.
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I'll be honest, zucchini (or courgette as I grew up knowing it) was never one of my favorites as a child. As with many things, it was all about how it was cooked. My mum is generally a good cook, but I think even she would admit courgette wasn't one she was that creative with.
Thankfully these days, she has discovered roasting it, but then she cooked them in the microwave. I know some may like them that way, but to me they came out bland and bitter.
Luckily, I have always been up for giving foods another chance and have since been pleasantly surprised at how delicious zucchini can be. And my kids have followed, I'm glad to say, with marinated grilled zucchini a firm favorite, and also now these.
What does involtini mean?
Involtini (singular involtino) are essentially small bites of food with something wrapped around a filling. They are typically savory and the outer layer may be meat, fish, or vegetables. Fillings can also vary with cheese of some kind common, but also ham or other ingredients.
In Sicily, the meat filled version can be called braciole and that name has become more popular in the US. Also in the US, you may see in particular the vegetable rolls called rollatini, but this is only a US term rather than one used in Italy.
You will also find similar dishes in other cultures, like German beef Rouladen and Polish/Ukrainian stuffed cabbage.
In terms of vegetable involtini, I think eggplant may be more common, but I have to say I really like these zucchini ones too. The zucchini has a lovely texture and the flavors all work so well.
I've drawn on a couple recipes in making this, in particular this Sandra Valvassori recipe. I tried to track down where you might find something like this in Italy, but didn't have a huge amount of luck.
In general the creamier filling seems to be more popular outside Italy from what I could find (most involtini versions from Italy I found used ham and a firmer cheese as filling), but it does still seem to exist here and there, like this ricotta and pine nut version from Cook in Umbria.
Origin aside, it may not be the quickest dish but it's easy enough and well worth the effort.
Choosing and cutting the zucchini
First things first, you want to use relatively large zucchini for this to get larger strips to work with. That said, don't go for jumbo-sized as they can be more bitter.
You want to cut strips lengthwise from the zucchini, and I recommend discarding the outer strip that is mainly skin - it won't be as wide and the skin is more likely to hold any bitterness.
You can cut strips with a knife or mandolin, as you prefer. Just watch your fingers either way! You want them about the thickness of a relatively thick coin, as a rule of thumb. Too thin and they can fall apart. Too thick and they will crack when you try to roll.
How to prepare the zucchini for involtini
While zucchini becomes a little flexible when you cut it thinly, the skin would snap if you tried to roll it. So, you need to prepare the zucchini a little in order to soften it up.
I have seen some suggest you can do this simply by salting the slices, but I think cooking is better. And while you could roast them in the oven, I really like the coloring and flavor you get from grilling. If you can grill on an actual grill, all the better, but even a grill pan does a great job.
You want to cook the slices just enough to get flexible and have some grill marks on them, but still with some 'bite' to them. Remember they are going to be cooked again in the sauce in the oven, and you want them to hold together.
Other tips for making this (and prepping ahead)
This is one of those dishes that might seem like a bit of work, but you can break it up and do it in bits ahead of time, if that suits your schedule better.
You can mix up the ricotta filling and store in the fridge for a day or two, and either make the marinara ahead and store in the fridge or you can use ready made, too.
You can grill the zucchini ahead of time as well, but ideally, I would just grill them up to a few hours ahead and store at room temperature to save them becoming too moist. But if needed, they should be fine in the fridge, too.
If you have leftovers, or decide to make a big batch, any leftovers reheat well the next day. Either warm them in the microwave (part-covered) or place in a low oven to heat everything through. Just make sure you still have some of the sauce to save drying out and if need be, cover with foil when heating in the oven.
Much as the filling is delicious, don't be tempted to put too much in each roll as it will just all fall out. Just a couple teaspoons is usually plenty to fill across the narrow width to then roll up.
These are the kind of thing where you will find lots of variety in filling ingredients. It can be fun to play around with the flavors, or simply adapt to what you have. You could use different herbs or cheeses.
Some like to add some chopped, wilted greens like spinach or chard for a little extra bulk/texture. I've also seen nuts added. Experiment away!
These zucchini involtini may take a little more preparation time than some dishes, but they are most definitely worth the effort. They have that comfort factor, but also bright, fresh flavors. Try them as a side to various mains or make them the star of the meal. Either way, enjoy!
Try these other vegetarian dishes that can be a side or main:
- Spanakorizo (Greek spinach rice)
- Paneer makhani (Indian cheese in a tomato-nut sauce)
- Pumpkin risotto
- Ricotta and spinach gnudi
- Plus get more summer recipes and vegetarian meal ideas in the archives.
For marinara sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 clove garlic crushed
- 14 oz crushed tomatoes 400g, 1 regular can
- 18 oz zucchini 510g courgette, approx - 2 medium-large
- ½ tablespoon olive oil approx, to brush
- 1 cup ricotta 235g (recommend whole milk)
- ½ cup grated parmesan 30g/ 1oz
- ½ lemon zest ie from ½ lemon
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoon chopped basil (finely chopped)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
For marinara sauce (can be made ahead)
- Warm the olive oil in a small-medium skillet/frying pan over a medium heat. Once warm, add the garlic and stir to cook in the oil a minute to become fragrant but take care not to let it burn.
- Add the tomatoes, stir to mix and bring to a simmer. Let the sauce cook around 10 minutes to thicken slightly then remove from heat.
- Trim both ends of the zucchini and cut them into slices lengthwise - they should be relatively thin but not so thin they would fall apart (around medium coin thickness). Discard the edge pieces that are mainly skin.
- Brush both sides of the zucchini slices with oil then grill on both sides until they become flexible and have light grill markings. You want them soft but not falling apart.
For filling and to form and bake
- Preheat the oven to 425F/220C. Pour the marinara sauce into the bottom of an 8x8in (20x20cm) or similar equivalent sized baking dish.
- Place the ricotta, parmesan, lemon zest and juice, basil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and mix together well.
- Take spoonfuls of the filling mixture and place at the end each slice of grilled zucchini (spoonfuls should be around 2 teaspoon or a little more/less as fits the slice). Roll up each slice of zucchini around the filling.
- Place the rolled zucchini pieces into the marinara sauce, join side down, being careful not to squeeze out the filling. Bake for around 25 minutes so that the top becomes lightly dry and the sauce reduces slightly.
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