Every summer I look forward to each crop coming into its own, and I dream about all the wonderful dishes I'll cook or the preserves I'll make for winter. I'm even learning to appreciate some produce that gets less love than the usual tomatoes and beans and corn: every July, for example, I crave okra and ground cherries.
I'm just crazy enough about fresh produce that even the one crop that tends to bring to most people's minds visions of horror movies, ominous music, and underhanded schemes by gardeners or farmers wishing to rid themselves of the inevitable surplus doesn't scare me.
Yes, you know what I'm talking about: zucchini.
What wide-eyed innocent gardener growing zucchini for the first time hasn't had that frightening moment when, brushing the leaves aside to inspect the harvest, a giant green monster emerges from the shadows? How is it that one day, the fruit (and yes, zucchini are technically immature fruits) looks so small and tender, and the next, it looks like it's been pumping steroids out of the groundwater? Why do so many people dread a bumper crop of zucchini?
What other produce inspires such disdain and fear in the middle of the harvest season? It's unjust, really, and as a Friend of Unbelievably Zaftig Zucchini (that's right, we're the FUZZ), I'm here to set your mind at ease and encourage you to welcome this woefully misunderstood food into your own kitchen.
To begin with, zucchini — be it green, yellow, striped, long, short, round, or bat-shaped — hails from the species Cucurbita pepo, along with other summer squash. It's a latecomer to the botanical field, emerging from mutations of other European squash in the late 19th century and arriving with Italian immigrants in the United States in the early 20th century. It's low in calories, contains respectable amounts of vitamin A and potassium as well as a good portion of manganese, and is so easy to grow that it comes highly recommended as a good crop for those who want to stretch their food budget.
How so? Zucchini's mild flavor, with just a hint of starchy sweetness, helps it blend into many dishes as well as stand comfortably on its own. While I can often make a meal from one small (6" to 8" long) zucchini, sliced and sauteed in olive oil with some fresh garlic and seasoned with black pepper and Parmesan cheese, I can usually find even more uses for the larger zucchini.
If you find yourself the recipient of more zucchini than you think you can use this summer, here are plenty of ideas for cooking them now or saving them for later — and enjoying every bite:
• Slice it, dredge the slices in egg and then a cornmeal or bread-crumb breading, and fry the slices in a thin layer of oil or bake the slices on a baking sheet until browned. Serve on their own, or use them to replace the eggplant in eggplant parmigiana.
• Cut it into broad, lengthwise slices that then become the "noodles" in a pan of vegetable lasagna. (Though my mother first introduced me to the idea, the Ethicurean's Ali shares her own variation — with recipe — at her blog the Cleaner Plate Club.)
• Those same lengthwise slices can be brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with dried herbs, then grilled or broiled. (Or, use chunks of zucchini in a vegetable kabob cooked on the grill.)
• Turn those lengthwise slices into narrow ribbons, and use the zucchini like noodles, sauteed lightly. (This is particularly attractive when you use green and yellow zucchini together.)
• Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seedy middle. Stuff with your own mixture of sautéed vegetables and herbs and grains, top with cheese, and bake (recipe suggestion at the link).
• Chop, slice, or shred into vegetable stews (such as ratatouille) or sauces. I especially like to add chunks of zucchini to a curry or shredded zucchini to pasta sauce.
• Slice it and use it raw in Ed's version of carpaccio. Perfect for a hot day!
• Remove seeds, shred, and use in baking a quiche, a quick bread, muffins (sample recipe below), cake, cookies, or even brownies.
• Remove seeds, shred and use in zucchini pancakes –- or combine with other vegetables for the same kind of vegetable pancake (recipe included at link) or fritter.
• Even the flowers can be eaten, usually dipped in batter (alone or stuffed) and fried.
To preserve zucchini, you can try one of these options (all good!):
• Remove seeds, shred, and arrange one-cup clumps of shreds on a tray, and freeze. Once solid, pack each clump into a separate freezer bag. Pull out the amount needed later.
• Pickle it either in spears (like cucumber pickles) or in a relish.
• Slice it thinly, arrange slices on a dehydrator tray, or a parchment-covered baking sheet, and dry until browned and brittle. Store in airtight glass jars when cool. Rehydrate before using.
That's hardly a comprehensive list, but you can see that you can either make the zucchini the focus of a meal or a subtle enhancement to another dish. And there's always room for improvisation!
Trust me, you'll enjoy eating your zucchini in many of these ways. And really, you'd better get started, because Friday, August 8, is the official "Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day" — and if you're not the one growing it, you'll be the one receiving it.
I promise. (Oh, and what's your address?)
Makes 12 to 18 muffins
1 c grated zucchini
1/4 c rolled oats
1/3 c canola oil
2 T lemon syrup or honey
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp freshly grated lemon peel
1/2 tsp lemon or almond extract (optional)
1 3/4 c whole wheat flour
1/4 c dry sugar (of your choice)
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 T powdered milk
Grate zucchini and squeeze out excess water. In a large bowl, combine zucchini, oats, oil, syrup or honey, eggs, lemon peel and extract, beating until well-blended. Set aside.
In smaller bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and powdered milk. Add to wet ingredients in two batches, blending well. Spoon batter into oiled or lined muffin tins.
Bake muffins at 350 F for 20 minutes, testing for doneness. Cool on wire racks. Muffins keep only a couple of days at room temperature due to high moisture content, so they're best stored in the refrigerator.