No vegetable has a perfect reputation, and zucchini—the summer’s most abundant cucurbit —is no exception. From the moment the weather warms in June to the moment nighttime temperatures plunge in October, the zucchini is omnipresent for the farmer, the shopper, and the eater.
Is a zucchini a squash? Yes—the immature fruit of a squash plant, that is. The word zucchini must come from the Italian word zucca, the general term for the savory, rind-forming members of the cucurbit family that we call winter squash. Take the feminine word zucca, and make it diminutive (to denote immaturity) and masculine (perhaps for productivity?), and then just go ahead and make it plural because they come on like a ton of bricks. If a Tuscan can’t name a vegetable according to its human characteristics, who can?
Zucchini plants need tending and harvesting every day to maintain vigor; undetected pests or mildew can kill a plant in a matter of hours. However, if water and sunshine are abundant, the fruit can triple in size, going from teeny-weenie to OMIGOD! in just one warm summer night. Keeping in fashion with other summertime vegetables and fruits, if you turn your back on your zucchini for a minute, he’s gotten away from you—and the only remedy is to pluck him and chuck him to the chickens, or chop him up for zucchini bread to freeze for the winter.
Is a summer squash a zucchini? It is. Yellow summer squash was developed from green zucchini, and (as happens in breeding for color alone) the yellow ones tend to be a little less hearty in the garden and a bit less succulent on the plate. But in terms of recipes they are interchangeable, or so close in flavor and texture that the only significant distinction becomes color.
Using the zuke
The best summer squash are the least mature—tender skin, microscopic seeds, plenty of sugar and no starchy bitterness. These little beauties can be grated and dressed raw with vinaigrette, and mixed with carrots, cabbage, cucumber, red onion, and herbs, then chilled overnight. They can also be quick-pickled and kept in the refrigerator for a few weeks—and the pickling liquid can be used over and over again, which certainly increases your chances of eating the whole harvest.
But what if you don’t (can’t!) eat the whole harvest? Zucchini can certainly be frozen, but the high water content will make the defrosted product a limp imitation of its summertime glory. If you insist upon freezing it, choose immature fruit, cut small pieces, and freeze them as quickly as possible (don’t tell the food safety people, but don’t blanch them—that would just introduce more water!).
If you have favorite recipes that involve zucchini, try taking them midway and then freezing them. For instance, make ratatouille up to the point where all the ingredients (except fresh herbs) are introduced, then freeze it into single-meal servings. When wintertime comes, you can defrost, pour off some liquid, simmer out the rest, and then season with herbs, salt, pepper, and olive oil.—Lisa Reeder
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.
The squash to watch
Sure, yellow and green are pretty, but look for these other distinctive summer squash as you stroll the farmer’s market. To store, wrap them in a thin towel and keep them in a humid part of the refrigerator.
Gracefully tapered and sometimes twisted, with a light green ‘dipped’ marking on the bulbous end. Slit each squash in half lengthwise (to preserve the delicate yellow/green division), wrap in thinly sliced bacon or Surryano ham, and broil for 5 to 10 minutes. Or stuff with chopped fish, crab or shrimp (anything that will cook quickly!), broil, and garnish with aioli.
Use the flower-like silhouette to accessorize a summertime pizza! To slice, hold the squash on its side and cut 1/4" florettes (little flowers) from stern to stem, then toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper. What else for the pizza? Try just a smear of sweet tomato sauce (or even thin slices of heirlooms instead), plus a dollop of fresh chevre or mozzarella and a sprinkling of basil as it cools. Thinly sliced spicy salami would make the sweet squash sing.
This light-green, freckled beauty is so sweet that she stands out in a spicy, salty crowd. Try making a grilled vege-table salsa starting with a seasoned base of fresh local tomatoes, finely chopped onion, and cilantro. Then grill, cool and chop Magda squash, onions, and spicy peppers (Anaheim, poblano, and banana would make an interesting color combi-nation, but you really can’t go wrong). It’s O.K. to put beer in salsa if it’s too spicy.
Dark and sleek with an exceptionally regular shape, this squash would hold its color even in a pickle! Cut this one into rounds, into cubes, into half-moons—its sides are so straight that the shapes will be perfect, with a dramatic contrast between skin and flesh colors. The dark color looks great amid tomatoes, like in ratatouille or in a light summertime baked pasta with plenty of olive oil and parmigiano-reggiano.