Thursday, July 15, 2010

Focus: ZUCCHINI (Cucurbita Pepo)

We can thank Italian immigrants for bringing their favorite summer squash back to America in the mid-1900's.   I say back because zucchini (which means "little squash"in Italian) originated in this country.  The first settlers were introduced to askutasquash by New England Indians.  The seeds were brought back to Europe by traders - various varieties were developed in different countries - and the Italians made it popular again in their adopted country.  (I am all for local food - but this kind of seed trading makes a person think.  I am glad that lots of seeds have traveled around the world.  Our culinary life is much more interesting.)

Zucchini plants are very prolific -  and it is true that there are times during the summer when we must contend with an excess of this tasty vegetable.  I can think of worse problems.

(Did you hear about the man who parked his car on the street and forgot to lock it?   Sure enough - when he returned someone had invaded his car!   The shameless criminal had left his calling card - a half bushel of zucchini was on the back seat.)

If you are looking through cookbooks for zucchini recipes, remember that the French call them courgettes and the English use the term marrow.  Either way, they are popular in soups, stews and salads.  They are wonderful served on their own as a side dish - grilled, steamed, sauteed or baked. 

Zucchini squash is 95% water - so it is low in calories.  In half a cup are 20 calories as well as 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of dietary fiber.  Zucchini is high in vitamins A and C.  The beta carotene is in the skin - so don't peel zucchini.  The skin is tender and very edible.

Storage and preservation
Zucchini is quite perishable.  Store, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator - best if used within 4-5 days.  Handle gently - the tender skin is easily cut.  If you just can't keep up with your zucchini, you can cook it and freeze for later.  I like to slice and saute it with a little onion and garlic and sweet red bell pepper if I have any around.  A mixture of zucchini and yellow squash is very nice.  Add fresh herbs such as parsley, basil or even dill.  This can be frozen in a freezer bag or other container.   Some winter night this will make a great meal served as a pasta sauce with some grated cheese.  It might get  a little watery - but you can just cook that off.

Some people like to make zucchini pickles or relish.  That is another good way to preserve a bumper crop of squash.

It seems to me that most gardeners let their zucchini get way too big.  I can understand how this can happen. One day they seem tiny and the next day they are huge.  Or they hide under a leaf so you can't find them and then they are overgrown.  Your CSA squash have been harvested at a nice practical size.  Large enough so you have a good quantity to work with but small enough to be tender and good tasting.

Three medium sized squash equal about one pound, or three cups sliced or chopped. If you grate and drain one pound of zucchini, you will end up with about 2 1/2 cups grated vegetable.  To wash, scrub gently with a soft brush.  Cut off stem and blossom ends.  Don't peel - the skin is tender and edible.

There are many ways to prepare zucchini.  Ten million eight hundred thousand, to be exact (yes - that is 10,800,000).  At least that is the number that came up when I Googled "Zucchini recipes".  That seemed a little overwhelming, even to me.  So I went to, one of my favorite recipe sites.  A search for simply "zucchini" resulted in 580 recipes. So I really don't think you need to worry about finding new ways to use zucchini. Here is one recipe from Epicurious that looked very good.  Little galettes with a lot of zucchini and some ricotta cheese.  A bit time consuming but worth it.

If you are grating zucchini to use raw or cooked,  always mix with a little salt (about 1/2 t. per pound) and drain for an hour or so to eliminate excess water.  Squeeze squash dry in a towel or with your hands.

Serving ideas
Slice or cut into sticks and eat with a dip or in a salad

Grate raw,  salt and drain and mix with a mustardy vinaigrette and some chopped mint and parsley and maybe a little bit of onion

Grate or chop and saute with some onions.  Add fresh herbs and well beaten eggs for a frittata.  Feta cheese is a good addition to a zucchini frittata.  Sometimes I add a few diced cooked potatoes if I want something more substantial.

Slice zucchini - 1/4 inch -  toss in a small amount of oil.  Bake in one layer on a baking sheet at 400 degrees about 20-25 minutes, or until tender. Serve with fresh herbs as desired.  A mixture of mint, parsley and oregano would be good.

Dice zucchini into small pieces and use raw (or lightly steamed) in a pasta salad with peas, sweet onion, peppers, tomatoes, olives and other favorite seasonal vegetables.

Make a simple casserole with milk, egg, cheese and bread crumbs.  (see my post for July 6 for a classic squash casserole recipe.)

Stuff and bake:
Baked stuffed zucchini - Middle Eastern style - Serves 4
4 medium zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
1 pound ground lamb
olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1 t. dried mint (or 1 T fresh.)
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
1/2 t. allspice
1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
1 egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
optional - grated sharp cheese such as kefalotyri or asiago
Use a small spoon to scrape the inside of the zucchini halves.  Leave a wall of about 1/4 - 1/2 inch.  Chop the zucchini insides.  Saute meat in a little olive oil with onion, chopped zucchini and garlic.  When meat is browned and onions are soft, add spices and herbs.  Let cool.  Mix in egg and bread crumbs.  Mound the stuffing into the zucchini halves.  Place zucchini in a baking pan with 1/4 inch water in the pan.  Cover and bake about 25 minutes at 375 degrees.  Uncover and bake another 15 minutes.
If desired, serve with a fresh or cooked tomato sauce or plain yogurt or both.

Tomorrow:  Tried and True - Savory Pancakes - including a basic zucchini pancake recipe

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