The other day I came home from the farmers market with so much zucchini the overflow from my refrigerator filled a big bowl on my counter. Every time I walked by I was torn between admiring the still life -- the usual suspects up against new Italian heirlooms with white stripes, and softball-round French squash, and almost black-hued hybrids -- and looking forward to getting my hand on a knife.
Usually in August the mantra is “too much zucchini.” My attitude is: Bring ‘em on.
Zucchini is not some commodity to be sublimated in soups and side dishes and breads any old time of year. It’s one of the most wondrous ingredients available to the seasonally sensitive. And if you get it while it’s young and tender, it can outperform far more glamorous and less prolific produce.
I’m convinced deprivation leads to inspiration, though. I buy zucchini only this time of year, averting my eyes from the obvious green alternative to broccoli in supermarkets in fall and winter. By the time the first skinny squash turn up in my farmers market, I’m ready to exploit and explore its unique, almost nutty flavor in new and old ways. Unlike so many cooks who are sick of zucchini even before it goes huge and woody on them, I see it as an irresistible option.
Most of the recipes crammed into the “Too Much Zucchini” canon have only one goal: burning through as much squash as possible, with no regard for nuances in flavor and texture. But zucchini is best approached like any short-term pleasure. Frying is one of the most reflexive ways to cook it, for instance, yet if you slice it thicker and don’t just dust it with flour but coat it in a batter more suited to an onion ring you’ll wind up with a basketful of something irresistible. The center of the slices will soften just enough, while the casing will emerge from the oil as crisp and fragile as pastry.
Grated zucchini can also be made into madeleines to great effect, with an almost quiche-like batter bulked up with flecks of green. The delicate combination of squash, cheese and basil is worlds away from the workhorse casseroles of the “Too Much” realm.
Green, and beyond
I always start my summer by braising half-moons of zucchini in a basic tomato-basil-garlic sauce, almost as a ritual. Then I might try a Provencal-style gratin: diced chunks simmered with garlic and herbs, then baked with cream and eggs and a layer of cheese. In both cases, the zucchini is not vanquished but transformed.
This year the experimenting is so much easier because zucchini is proliferating at farmers markets. The generic green kind you can buy all year, the kind that notoriously mutates overnight if left on the vine, is being supplanted by more tantalizing heirlooms and hybrids.
I was happily shopping for my first zucchini of the season when I picked up a ridged one with a pale green and white skin. It turned out to have surprisingly rounded flavor, cooked or raw, not to mention the most dramatic shape whether baked in a summer gratin or sliced as crudites. The farmer had labeled it costata romanesca, and it turns out to be an Italian heirloom. It’s easy to see why it didn’t make the commercial cut: those lovely ridges would not survive long-distance trucking. This is a local treasure.
On another Wednesday I found long, fat squash labeled raven zucchini, clearly a reflection of their green-to-the-verge-of-black skin. (They’re also known as black beauty.) The skin was tougher than usual and the flesh more like eggplant, with fewer seeds. The next Saturday I went for a skinny yellow zucchini labeled magda cousa, a Lebanese variety with delicate flavor and pulp.
The most dramatic of the “new” zucchini is a perfectly round one called the eight ball, about the size of a softball with deep, dark green skin. You almost don’t want to eat it, it’s so much like a table decoration, but it’s the best bet for stuffing. A more delicate cousin is the paler, sweeter ronde de Nice.
All these are competing with the usual lita, the pale green Middle Eastern zucchini that looks like the business end of a small baseball bat, and long, skinny, pale green cucuzza, or snake squash, the kind I recently saw labeled in a market in Florence as “the widow’s friend.”
Because my zucchini diet is restricted to summer, I also remain enamored of the regular kind, the straight green ones that are such a great addition to anything from an omelet to oatmeal cookies. And I would never throw their yellow cousins out of my shopping basket, either. A little color does not affect the flavor or texture, but it does liven up a recipe.
As is so often the case in the produce realm, California can take credit for at least the marketing genius. William Woys Weaver writes in “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening” (Henry Holt) that most green summer squash were always known by the Italian name cocozelle until West Coast growers -- primarily Italian -- adopted zucchini in the 1920s and 1930s. Zucca is Italian for squash, and “ini” is diminutive.
Despite the name, zucchini are also dominant in other cuisines beyond Italian, particularly French and Mexican. In Europe you’ll usually see them labeled courgette. “The Oxford Companion to Food” gives Elizabeth David credit for popularizing them in England in the 1950s. But their history in this country goes at least back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who each grew them (no word on whether they complained about bumper crops).
It’s easy to see how zucchini became a year-round staple. It can go into anything from an appetizer to a soup to a salad to a main course to a dessert. Carrots can too, but they never lose their carrot quality. Too often, zucchini is forced to surrender its identity. And then what’s the point?
Zucchini had a heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when vegetarianism was more Earth Shoes plodding than it is today. Mollie Katzen’s classic “Moosewood” cookbook has time-warp recipes for “meaty” dishes like stuffed “zuccanoes” and stew and pancakes. She even turned the grated squash into a “crust” for pizza, topped with tomatoes and cheese.
Zucchini evolved out of that stodginess into ratatouille madness, that phase in the ‘80s when you couldn’t escape the Provencal stew with eggplant, tomatoes, garlic and basil. I made it countless times myself -- there, I admit it. The Mexican answer to ratatouille is calabacitas, a stew of diced zucchini, fresh corn, poblano peppers and tomatoes, with cumin and Mexican oregano as the base seasonings accented by fresh cilantro at the end. That combination is superb, even better when you stir in a good portion of a mild cheese like Colby Longhorn or Monterey Jack.
Those kinds of vegetable combinations can work as main courses, but zucchini might be at its best on the side. One of the easiest and most satisfying ways to cook it is to slice it thin and cook it over very high heat with a little olive oil and salt until it almost chars. That bitter edge brings out the inherent sweetness.
An even faster trick is to grate it on the coarse side of a box grater and saute it in good olive oil with garlic and basil (or thyme, or oregano, or even mint). You can serve it plain or dust it with Parmesan or crumbled feta or goat cheese.
With sliced or grated zucchini, nuts bring out another dimension of flavor and texture: pine nuts, pecans, almonds, even black walnuts, as Evan Jones suggested in his book “American Food.”
In the raw
Zucchini can be excellent even raw. Last time I batter-fried some, I thought of serving the slices with the Greek garlic-almond sauce skordalia but realized that was overkill. Instead, the sauce makes an extraordinary dip for raw sliced zucchini. (I was out of the habit of serving zucchini raw because it had gotten so woody, but then I set some out at a party and found people ate the slices like potato chips.)
With virtually all zucchini, your best bets are on the small side -- skinny squash tend to be less watery and more nutty-tasting. Most cookbooks advise cutting and then salting and draining zucchini before cooking, but that’s a pointless exercise if you start with farmers market zucchini. I also almost never peel them, because the skin has half the flavor and certainly most of the fiber.
Insisting on only fit zucchini may open you up to charges of size-ism, but it’s good to remember Marian Morash’s advice in her “Victory Garden Cookbook.” Those spaceship-size squash are better used to dramatic effect rather than in cooking: She suggests hollowing them out like watermelons and using them as “bowls” for serving salads or presenting a still life with vegetables as a table centerpiece.