|Zucchini is available in abundance during the summer months at farmers’ markets and in home gardens, such as this striped variety sold with blossoms attached. Photo by Esther Oertel.|
Forget the zombie apocalypse. It’s summertime and the zucchini apocalypse is upon us.
You’ve probably heard the jokes about getting rid of over-zealous zucchini this time of year, especially if you’re a home gardener. For example:
How do you know someone’s got no friends? When you see them shopping for zucchini in summertime.
Or, when do country folks lock their car doors? In the height of summer, for fear someone might slip a bag of zucchini in there.
You get the idea.
A single zucchini plant can produce dozens of fruits over the course of a couple of months, prompting stealth gifts to neighbors and friends.
The truth is that young, tender, recently-picked zucchinis are a magnificent treat.
As to their overabundance, zucchini can be frozen for later use in recipes, a useful thing if friends hide when you ring their doorbell with a bag stuffed full of the summer crop.
All squashes, including the ancestors of modern day zucchini, originated in Mesoamerica, in an area between Mexico and Guatemala, and gradually spread throughout the Americas.
They were brought to Europe from the New World by explorers. Christopher Columbus, for example, is credited for bringing squash seeds back from his journeys there.
The English word “squash” derives from the Native American “askutasquash,” a word from the Narragansett language, spoken in what is now Rhode Island. It literally means “a green thing eaten raw.”
Zuchinni, known as zucchina in Italy and courgette in France and Britain, was developed in Italy – likely in the late 18th century – from squash brought to Europe from the New World.
While zucchini is used as a vegetable in most culinary applications, it’s botanically considered a fruit, being the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower.
As popular as it is now, it’s hard to believe that zucchini was virtually unknown in the U.S. as little as three decades ago.
Typically elongated and deep green, hybrids have been developed in recent years, including yellow, light green, striped, and even round varieties of zucchini.
If left on the vine, zucchini can grow to a mammoth length of more than two feet, with the skin becoming tough and the seeds large and bitter at this size.
The best tasting zucchini are harvested when young, before their flavor is diluted from the increased water content that comes with growth.
They should be picked just as the blossom on the end of the squash begins to turn brown. An ideal zucchini is between 4 and 8 inches long.
Low in calories and high in water content, zucchini is a good source of manganese, vitamin C, magnesium, vitamin A, fiber, potassium, vitamin K and folate.
These nutrients have been shown to be beneficial for the prevention of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries due to fatty deposits), high blood pressure and diabetic heart disease.
Although phytonutrient research on zucchini and other summer squashes is limited, in studies they’ve shown a mild benefit in the prevention of cancer-like changes in cells. Other studies have shown them to be useful in reducing symptoms associated with prostate enlargement in men.
Zucchini is delightful prepared on the grill. I like to slice them in half lengthwise for grilling, but they can also be skewered.
Simply slice them into half rounds and thread them on a skewer so they lie flat on the grill. Brush them with a bit of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle chopped fresh rosemary or tender thyme tips on top. Grill until they’re seared and tender. Cherry tomatoes make for a nice contrast of color and flavor when threaded between the zucchini slices.
If sautéing zucchini, onions, garlic, or sun-dried tomatoes (along with their oil, if jarred) add flavor and interest, pairing well with them in the pan.
If a quintessential versatile vegetable exists, it must be zucchini. They can be used in sweet applications, such as being added to breads and muffins, as well as in a plethora of savory ways.
Zucchini may be added to pasta sauces, soups, stews, quiches, lasagna and casseroles, either as a complement to the recipe or the star of the show.
It can be thinly sliced to make a crust for a vegetable or meat pie or can be used in lieu of eggplant in an Eggplant Parmagiana recipe.
Zucchini is a key ingredient in ratatouille, the classic vegetable dish birthed in the Provence region of France, along with other summer bounty like tomatoes and eggplant.
Slice zucchini thin on pizza with feta cheese, grate it as an addition to potato pancakes, make it into fritters, build a frittata around it, or make a hearty grilled veggie sandwich or wrap.
For a vegetarian treat, small zucchini may be roasted till tender in the oven or on the grill and used in lieu of hot dogs in a bun.
When zucchini is frozen, it softens and is not ideal on its own, but since it serves as a component of so many recipes, it’s wonderful to have a supply on hand in your freezer.
To freeze, wash and slice the squash and blanch in boiling water for two to three minutes. Remove from the boiling water and place in an ice water bath to cool it down. Once cooled, drain the squash thoroughly and place in freezer safe zipper locked bags.
Remove as much air as possible, seal partially and suck the remaining air out with a straw before sealing all the way. Lay bags flat in the freezer until frozen through.
I freeze grated zucchini raw in quantities needed for bread or muffin recipes, and allow it to thaw and drain before I use it.
Zucchini blossoms are also edible. They’re sometimes available at farmers’ markets, but if you have a home garden, this tasty treat is at your fingertips. They’re quite perishable, so should be used within hours of harvest or purchase.
If you harvest them yourself, it’s best to do so in the early morning before the blossoms have twisted shut. Some enthusiastic souls harvest them at night by flashlight, as – according to them – insects are less likely to be found in the blossoms then.
Each zucchini plant has male and female blossoms. The male blossoms appear on long stems and can be harvested without affecting production of the squash. They should be picked with a length of stem attached.
Female blossoms are attached to the end of the squash itself. They can be nipped off on their own, or harvested along with the young squash.
These large, orange-yellow blossoms make a tasty and colorful addition to salads or as a garnish for soup.
They can be added to the pan when sautéing summer squash, paired with cream cheese in an omelet or with Asiago cheese in a frittata.
Chop them fine to mix with a spread (such as with cream cheese and chives) or add them to quesadillas, a favorite use for them in Mexico.
Is your mouth watering yet? Maybe the zucchini apocalypse isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Zucchini are available year-round in the supermarket, but at this time of year I’d suggest heading to a farmers’ market to find them freshly-picked and locally grown.
Or maybe just leave your car doors unlocked.
Either way, here’s a recipe to get you started. Enjoy!
Green and gold zucchini with penne and ricotta
1 cup fresh ricotta, cow’s milk or sheep’s milk (the freshest you can get, preferably whole milk) 2 pounds zucchini, mixed green and yellow
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 plump garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons marjoram or opal basil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound penne pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan or Dry Monterey Jack Cheese
Put water on for the pasta. Remove the ricotta from the refrigerator and spoon it onto a plate so that it will warm to room temperature.
Slice the zucchini on the diagonal a scant ½ inch thick, then slice into strips so that each piece resembles the quill-shaped pasta.
Heat the oil in a wide skillet. Add the zucchini and sauté over medium-high heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and marjoram, toss with the squash, and turn off the heat. Season well with salt and pepper.
When the water boils, add salt and the penne. Cook until al dente, then drain and add it to the zucchini. Toss, season with salt and pepper, then add the ricotta cheese in spoonfuls.
Grate the cheese over the dish and serve.
Note: Fresh goat cheese may be used in place of the ricotta, or a combination of the two. Since a wonderful goat dairy exists in Lake County, this is a nice choice.
Recipe by Deborah Madison and courtesy of “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.”
Esther Oertel, a freelance writer, cooking teacher, and speaker, is passionate about local produce and all foods in the vegetable kingdom. She welcomes your questions and comments and may be reached at [email protected] .