Spicy Pesto Italian Sausage Zucchini Involtini!

Okay, so first, credit where credit is due. This recipe was originally something I came across on my Pinterest feed. The link to the receipt is here: https://www.halfbakedharvest.com/spicy-pesto-and-cheese-stuffed-zucchini-involtini/

Half Baked Harvest has some wonderful recipes and even has their own cookbook for sale. I highly recommend checking them out. I appreciate their site very much. I do make some of my tweaks to a standard recipe, but I cannot claim credit for many of the recipes I use. I can only claim my alterations to them in order to make them fit my new Keto/Mediterranean lifestyle.

So let's be real. I'm Italian (among other weird and previously unknown things - thanks 23 & Me), and was raised on pasta. So to make the changes we have and say goodbye to my pasta..... well..... that was like losing a family member and mourning for a bit. Let's be super clear too, NOTHING TAKES THE PLACE OF PASTA! Maybe I should back up a little bit.

Lesson 1 to major diet change, don't substitute looking for the same fulfillment! Oh my gosh folks, if you think hey, I'm gonna make this almond flour cinnamon roll with sugar substitute created glaze, and it's gonna be as wonderful as what I know a Cinnabon to be STOP.... STOP NOW..... take a step back and adjust your attitude because that kind of thinking with foredoom you to failure. Creating a dish hoping that you will get the same glorious taste, the same nostalgia, the same happy tummy feeling as you might have once had with a specific food and specific ingredients is asking to be completely disappointed! Let's be real! This is a major change in life! You cannot think about making chocolate chip cookies with soy chocolate chips and no real sugar, and coconut flour or coconut milk and expect they will be just like the original! Get that out of your heads now kids!

I tell you these things because I love you and I want you to succeed. So part 2 of Lesson 1 - approach these healthier versions of your old favorites as something new and wonderful. Approach them with the mentality that this is a lovely treat that is going to taste a little different (sometimes a lot), but very well could be a new personal favorite. Don't walk in expecting that the brownies are going to take like a creamy Duncan Hines Fudge Brownie from before, or that the Toll House will come through in your 75% different ingredient cookie recipe. It's NOT gonna happen. It's going to leave you feeling defeated and disappointed, so just go in knowing you are creating something new and different that will be a fun experiment as you search for you new favorite sweet recipe that will give you some iota of pleasure.

Now, with all that said, I'm not saying by any means that you can't or won't enjoy what you create, and in my personal experience, I am finding that I just don't have the same desire for those things I once craved with a deadly-store-robbing-drug-withdrawal-desire. I make them, and put a big slice on a plate or in a bowl, and sit down to eat them, and have maybe only a quarter of what I made. My husband, who is a sweets junkie from way way way back, shares the remainder in my dish, and sometimes doesn't finish it. The reason isn't because we don't like what I made, it's because we have broken the sugar addiction and the need to eat that (you know that need... the deadly-store-robbing-drug-withdrawal-desire need), it's just not there so much. We get a nibble or two, it's yummy, and we just don't NEED it like we once did. My experience is, we might take a whole pan of brownies.... eat maybe 3 or 4 out of the pan, and I'm tossing the balance by week end.

So with my long-winded and probably painful lead up.... back to pasta! So in my heart and mind, I knew that my life would never ever be livable without pasta in it. I'm talking lasagna... spaghetti.... rigatoni.... hell, Mac & Cheese for Olga's (Italian grandma) sake! How in the world could I ever take on a diet in my life that didn't include pasta. What nightmare of a human being thinks that is remotely feasible and gives you that ponytail-yoga pant wearing-gym bunny-kale eating-smile and says, trust me, this is good for you, you'll love it! ---time out for clarity--- The pony-tailed yoga pant wearing gym bunny is not someone I intend to insult.... being fair.... I love you and I'm jealous of you and strive to be more like you for the sake of my health and well-being so good on you, but a girls gotta throw a little stereotype in there so others can relate to my plight!!! So please forgive me - and feel free to poke fun back in comments.

So a world without pasta seemed like NO world I wanted to live in, ever, ever, ever....did I say ever? However.... I started finding options, menus, recipes, and trying them. and the things that I found were great. Different, not pasta, but great. Again, as time went on also, and we broke our sugar/carb habit down, and started to be free of those cravings, I found I didn't need the pasta. I'm actually gonna say this, it's sacrilege I think.... don't judge me.... but I CRAVE VEGETABLES! What in the actual F#@% is happening right now!?!?!?

This process took a little time, but I'm officially about 2 months of full menu/lifestyle change, and my body has never been happier or craved better and more healthy eating. I personally have been on my journey since May, but the real intensive changes happened in July when my husbands heart attack gave us the scare of our lifetimes.

So on to the recipe. Finally.... geez lady, shut up already! We just wanna eat!

So I'm going to list my version of ingredients, but again, please feel free to go with the original version on Half Baked's website. It's fantastic as is! I'm also going to share the brands I used when it comes to specific items, as that has been helpful for me to know which brands of certain new items just taste better than others.

Also, know this in advance - I'm not an exact measures kind of gal, and I feed a family of 6, so my portions are based on not only feeding my family but leaving myself leftovers for lunches during the week. Nothing I bake/cook is a 2 person meal. I almost wouldn't know how to do that. So please keep that in mind as you read. I'll give you a breakdown of how much this made me so that you can get an idea of the amount you might want to cut the recipe down. I'm a lefties kind of girl for work, so know that before hand!

Prep time: 30 min

Cook time: 30 min

Oven temp: 425 degrees


** indicates notes below


6 tbsp Olive Oil (I use EVOO)

2 lbs of spicy/mild chicken sausage**

2 Bell Peppers chopped

1 Large Sweet Onion chopped

2-4 tbsp minced garlic

2 cans of San Marzano Tomatoes**

2 tbsp chopped fresh Oregano (3-4 tbsp of dry Oregano if you don't have fresh)

2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves (3-4 tbsp of dry if you don't have fresh)

1 pinch of crushed red pepper flake**

Sea Salt & Black Pepper

2 cups basil pesto (homemade or store bought)**

3 cups whole milk ricotta cheese

1 giant zucchini or summer squash (we have monsters here - it may take 2-3 medium or large sized ones otherwise)

1 1/2 cup to 2 cups shredded Mozzarella Cheese**

Preheat the oven 425 degrees and find some baking pans... yes pans... I used a 9x13 glass baking dish and an 8x11" glass baking dish. Lightly grease them, I just spread a little EVOO around the pan.

Heat a large pan on medium high and add your EVOO, once it's shimmery, add the chicken sausage. I can't stress this piece enough, chicken sausage isn't fatty, so it will stick to the pan if you don't plan for it and use EVOO, so be sure you have a fair amount in your pan. In my cooking EVOO is always used/added again as I cook if needed. Brown up that sausage, breaking it up as you go, depending on how much you break it up will depend on timing, but should take less than 10 min. I like my sausage still kind of chunky (more like meatballs in my sauce), but do you and how you prefer it. Once browned, add your chopped bell pepper, and your onion, and add a little more EVOO if your pan is looking dry. Saute the veggies for a few min 3-4 should be plenty, and then add in the garlic and saute for a minute or two more. The fragrance should be amazing. Add your tomatoes, thyme and basil, salt and pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes. When I cook, I taste, so add the salt and pepper and let things simmer a moment as the flavors combine, and then taste... add more as you feel is needed. The original instructions state to simmer for 10 min, but as an Italian cook from way back, I simmer for half an hour or so, to let the flavors really combine, but also to give the house that amazing smell that brings nostalgic feelings of good food and family. MANGIA BENE!

While the simmering is happening with your sauce, you cut long flat strips of zucchini. My zucchini was massive, so I did one strip per roll, however if you have smaller zucchini available to you, you may want to double up on strips so you can lay two overlapping per roll. As you strip your zucchini out, lay them out on a prepared paper towel or towel to soak up moisture. Larger zucchini are less likely to be as moist, but smaller zucchini can bring a lot of water to your dish. The paper towel process will help elevate some of that issue. Sprinkle some sea salt over the zucchini and let it rest.

In a bowl combine your ricotta cheese, half of your mozzarella cheese and the pesto. Stir it up all green and white and full of ooey gooey flavor!

It's easier than IKEA to assemble! First put some sauce in your baking dishes. This nice littel layer will help keep things from sticking. Lay out a piece of zucchini, use a tablespoon and spoon some of the cheese mixture onto the zucchini, and roll it up into a nice little goodness filled tube. Place your zucchini wrap into the baking pan and continue the process. I filled both baking dishes up with rolls, it's okay if they touch, just don't cram them in. Once your pans are full, spoon additional sauce over the top of the rolls, and then cover with the remaining mozzarella cheese.

Place in the oven and bake for about 20 min, until the zucchini shows some nice browning. Let rest for about 5 min after baking and then serve with fresh basil and thyme (if you have it). So amazing!

Okay my notes on this recipe:

Chicken sausage: I used Insernio's Mild & Hot Italian Chicken sausage. I used a combination. Two rolls of each. My family likes some good spice and zest but sometimes the spice in the Italian sausages can be intensive in one bite. I like it spread throughout the dish.

San Marzano Tomatoes:

Okay I can't say this enough - these are a more expensive, but the flavor is essential to dishes. We here in America are kind of overfed products that are lacking in flavor, over produced, over grown, and I am telling you, it's so worth it to pay the couple of dollars extra per can on these. They are not as acidic and are so full of flavor.

In my local store, they don't have crushed tomatoes, only whole ones, but no worries! You can crush them yourself. Pour the San Marzano tomatoes into a bowl, take off our jewelry and your watch, and carefully smash the tomatoes with your hands! **safety goggles might be smart! Don't get it in your eye! They will attack as you squeeze!

Crushed Red Pepper Flakes: Okay so we like some spice but not so hot that you can't eat it, however, what I have found is that red pepper flakes, if given time to simmer can make a dish that great creep up on you spicy throughout. If you add your red pepper flakes early on in a dish, add a little less that you think you need, simmer for a few min, and then taste. I actually prefer to add my flakes when I am cooking the meat, and let them sautee into not just the meat but the veggies prior to adding the tomato sauce. It just gives a great even flavor all throughout. I tend to add a little more as I add the tomatoes after sampling the veggies and the meat.

Basil Pesto:

So Basil Pesto is one of the easiest homemade items ever. It's so simple to make if you have a food processor, or even a blender can work. You seriously only need pine nuts, Parmesan, fresh basil, EVOO, salt, pepper and garlic. I will list a recipe for this soon, but it's very simple to make your own, to make it without a bunch of processed garbage in it, and for it to be amazing. With that said, if you don't have the time, you can buy it at the store. I do and have, and this is the product I used:

If you have any questions, please feel free to post in the comments. I will answer as they come in. Also please share your thoughts and ideas.

The original recipe did call for fontina cheese (which I couldn't locate at my store), and it didn't have garlic (which I didn't understand AT ALL), and didn't have onion, which I feel a sweet onion is staple to any decent tomato sauce. No other way is wrong, but this is simply my preference.

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