From all over the globe they come to Los Angeles, unknown or overlooked at home and hoping to make it big. And so it was for the zucchini. But while it seems that almost everyone else who has come to Southern California and wound up famous has been memorialized by a statue, a star in the sidewalk or even been elected governor, nowhere is there a monument to the zucchini and the region’s role in its meteoric rise to fame.
Yet it’s safe to say that without us Southern Californians -- enthusiastic food adventurers even in the 1920s -- zucchini, one of the most popular vegetables in the world, might be nothing more than just another obscure summer squash.
Today zucchini is so ubiquitous it’s like vegetable wallpaper -- seen everywhere but noticed never. That’s true in this country, where it is so plentiful it has become the butt of jokes, and even globally, where one squash expert says there is probably as much zucchini harvested around the world as all other members of the squash family put together.
Though it seems impossible to imagine today, 100 years ago zucchini was a brand-new vegetable. According to Harry S. Paris, the preeminent squash historian, the first recorded mention of a squash from the zucchini family was a regional Milanese variety in 1901 in an Italian seed pamphlet.
The records are foggy -- at the turn of the century no one seems to have deemed the introduction of a new squash much worth writing about -- but the best evidence shows that zucchini was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants around World War I.
And despite the fact that the first academic reference to zucchini in this country didn’t come until 1937, in Southern California it was well-known much earlier than that, thanks to a local seed supplier and a couple of downtown Los Angeles restaurants.
Throughout the 1920s, according to The Times archives, Southern Californians were slicing, sauteing, frying and stuffing zucchini with happy abandon.
Paris, who got his start helping his dad grow melons in his backyard in Brooklyn, is now a senior research scientist at Newe Ya’ar Research Center in Israel, specializing in the breeding, cultivation, history and genetics of squashes. He says the first zucchini was probably a spontaneously occurring genetic mutation that was recognized by its grower as having better flavor, color and shape than its parents and so its seeds were saved and replanted.
Historic seed catalog
SQUASH maven Amy Goldman, while researching “The Compleat Squash” (a gorgeous coffee table book), turned up what is to this point the first American mention of zucchini in the 1919 catalog of Los Angeles’ Germain Seed and Plant Co. -- making it likely that the company introduced the vegetable commercially in this country.
This was the golden age of Southern California nurseries and the zucchini was only one of the important introductions at the turn of the 20th century. Local seedsmen also pioneered the Hass avocado (discovered in Whittier) and the Washington navel orange.
The zucchini evidently caught on quickly here. The next year, less than 20 years after its discovery in Italy, the Germain catalog had an entire page devoted to the squash, including pictures and recipes from a downtown restaurant called Cafe Marcell, run by Joe Marcell Annechini at 215 W. 4th St.
In a 1921 story in The Los Angeles Times extolling the treasures to be found in local ethnic restaurants, the writer enthuses: “Wise is he who waives his customary steak and potatoes, and instead scans the menu for real fare of sunny Italia. Zucchini, for instance, that Italian squash which Signor Marcel-- and others -- import especially. It may be served in different styles, but the favorite is when, cut into small succulent squares it is breaded and fried in olive oil. Ah!”
That squash at Marcell was almost certainly not imported -- can you imagine what a zucchini would look like after a several-weeks ocean voyage? But the fact that it was described as such is testimony to the cachet of the new vegetable. As is the fact that later in that same year, the Thanksgiving menu of the Victor Hugo restaurant, at 623 S. Hill St., gave zucchini prominent billing alongside ravioli “genoise” and Imperial Valley Tom Turkey.
Chef A.L. Wyman, who wrote a weekly Times column called “Practical Recipes: Hints for Epicures and All Who Appreciate Good Cooking,” was an early champion of the zucchini as well, pushing his curious readers to try all sorts of preparations, including stuffing them with bread crumbs and almonds.
Of course the road to adoption was not entirely smooth. Though Germain recommended picking zucchini at the quite sensible length of 5 1/2 inches, photographs from the period clearly show that this was often ignored.
Looking at faxed photographs from The Times database of “Italian squash,” Paris e-mailed that these appeared to be very mature zucchini, but it was hard to tell.
“But it also occurs to me,” he wrote, “why are all of the pictures of such mature fruits? They are certainly not very good in the kitchen at that size. Perhaps the gardening public was not as yet familiar with this stuff to know that the fruits had to be picked when very young.”
These are not the only early references that are ambiguous. For example, in an 1898 article, someone who called himself the “Country Gentleman” touted California as “The Italy of America” (some things never change), and told of being served an entree he describes as “a sort of chowder formed by baking slices of Italian squash, tomato, onion and giblets of fowls with plenty of sweet butter.”
All of these squashes could have been zucchini, but possibly not. Why the confusion? How hard can it be to spot a zucchini? Pretty darned difficult, it turns out. In fact, many of the squashes we now call zucchini really aren’t zucchini at all.
This is just another part of the long and tangled history of the squash family. Squash as we now know it was introduced to Europe by Columbus at the end of the 15th century. But that is somewhat misleading because the words now used for squash in France and Italy -- courge and zucca -- were actually in common use well before Columbus’ voyage.
They were used to describe what today are called gourds (though they were cooked at the time, they rarely are today).
Courgette and zucchini are the diminutives of these words -- literally “little squashes.” Curiously, zucchini underwent a gender transformation somewhere along the line. The grammatical plural of zucca is zucchine -- a feminine noun. It is still called that in many places in Italy, but for reasons no one can fully explain, in other parts of Italy and in the U.S., the squash is called zucchini -- the masculine plural.
Squash is part of the large and widely varied cucurbit family, which includes cucumbers and most melons. From a cook’s point of view, squash can be divided into two main categories: winter varieties, which are allowed to mature fully and develop a hard shell; and summer, which are picked immature while their skins are still tender.
Zucchini is a summer squash, of course, but hardly the only one. There are several main groups, categorized mainly by shape. There are scalloped squashes that are somewhat flattened with decorated edges. And there are crooknecks and straight necks, with bulbous shapes where the neck is much slimmer than the body. Those are obvious enough.
But from there it gets confusing. There are three different families of squash that resemble the zucchini (and today are sold as zucchini). They are all roughly cylindrical in shape and green in color. The differences are in the details.
The first is called a vegetable marrow. These are somewhat dumpy looking, tapering from flower end to neck and are typically gray-green. They are the ones frequently seen in Mexican markets. Then there is the family called cocozelle, which is very long, frequently curving, sometimes slightly bulbous and usually darker green with lighter stripes running their length.
According to Paris, who has a hobby of identifying the squash varieties in old paintings, cocozelle are the zucchini-looking things pictured in Vincenzo Campi’s familiar 1580 painting “Fruttivendola (The Fruit Seller).”
Paris has also identified the squashes pictured in early 16th century frescoes in Rome’s Villa Farnesina and in a prayer book commissioned by Anne de Bretagne, painted between 1503 and 1508, little more than a decade after Columbus’ return.
True to form
TRUE zucchini are of moderate length, straight and have very little, if any, taper. They are usually very dark green, almost black (in fact, one of the first commercial varieties sold in the U.S. was called ‘Black Zucchini’).
There are also gold zucchini varieties, but these are of very recent vintage. The first, and still one of the most popular, gold zucchini was released in 1973 and was developed by a breeder named Oved Shifriss (he also developed the ‘Big Boy’ tomato).
Though there are round, green summer squashes that are called zucchini such as ‘Ronde de Nice’ and ‘Tondo di Nizza’ (probably the same variety from different areas), these are actually a kind of summer pumpkin that is picked very young.
The differences among all these squashes are more than cosmetic. They have different flavors and textures. Marrow squashes, which are especially popular in the Middle East and Mexico, are firm but somewhat bland. Cocozelle, which are very popular in Italy, have a rich flavor, but because they are so thin they can be delicate in texture.
Zucchini, of which there are now more than 100 varieties available, range somewhere in between (indeed, many of the summer squash now sold as zucchini are actually cocozelle or marrows or hybrid crosses between the various families).
Still, these differences in color and shape can give you a hint as to the flavor and texture of squash you find in the market. If, for example, it has a distinct taper and a grayish color (such as the ones sold in Mexican markets for making cocido), odds are it will be firm but not very distinctive in taste. Generally, the deeper the color, the richer the flavor.
What’s that, you say? Flavorful zucchini? Though widely regarded as bland, their taste really can be rich, though subtle.
To get the best sense of what zucchini tastes like, cook them most simply. Cut up some zucchini (long wedges work best because they’ll keep their texture) and put them in a skillet with a peeled whole clove of garlic, 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and a healthy glug-glug of olive oil. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat just until the squash begins to become tender, about 5 minutes.
Remove the lid, turn up the heat to high and reduce the liquid to a syrupy glaze. Cook until the zucchini begin to sizzle and brown, 3 or 4 minutes. Season with salt and serve.
Cooked through, crisply
THE most common mistake people make when preparing zucchini is cooking it until it turns limp and watery. To be at its best, the squash should be thoroughly cooked, but still offer a bit of crispness, or at least resistance to the bite. You can manage this by cooking it for a short time, of course, or by varying the size of the pieces you’re cooking.
Zucchini that will be cooked quickly can be cut in small pieces, even shredded. If you’re going to cook the squash for a while, leave it in large chunks.
In a salad with pine nuts, for example, the zucchini is cut in small pieces and then salted to draw out some of the moisture, “cooking” it without heat and revealing the squash’s sweet, nutty heart.
Dress the zucchini with olive oil and lemon juice and flavor it with red onion and basil, but the pine nuts will really set up the flavor of the squash.
You get a completely different picture of zucchini by cutting it a little bigger and cooking it in agrodolce, the Italian version of sweet and sour. Made this way, zucchini becomes a bracing dish that is perfect for serving alongside grilled meat on a hot summer evening.
Or you can make zucchini meaty enough to serve as a main dish on its own by cutting it in thick quarters and stewing it gently with sweet long-cooked onions and a roasted poblano chile in Mexican cream. Sprinkle it with some crumbled cotija cheese to make it more substantial.
But however you choose to cook zucchini, do it with care. After all, it is practically one of our own, and that dish may be the only monument it will ever get.