COOKING WITH SUMMER ZUCCHINI
I first became acquainted with the vegetable called zucchini one summer when my parents went away on holiday. The last thing we were told was to pick the zucchini when it was ready. My siblings and I nodded yes although we had no idea when “ready” would be or what it even looked like. Most of our days were spent outdoors in the backyard playing endless games that were occasionally broken up to have a lemonade or cool off on the lawn. Our parents were to be gone for a month so, as kids do, we quickly forgot our chores. It was during a game of baseball that a deep hit to left field sent the ball into the vegetable patch that had been carved out near the house. Stepping over the fence and into the patch of winding and climbing plants to retrieve the ball we noticed large green cylinders growing amongst the large leaves. Not knowing what size they should be to pick we left the zucchini there untouched – our curiosity satisfied – and resumed playing ball. A few days later and another hot, sunny day returned us to the backyard for some more baseball. This time it did not take a deep hit to left field to draw our attention to the vegetable patch. The green cylinders were now gigantic – thicker than our baseball bat and bigger even than some of our limbs! Our attention captured a discussion broke out as to whether this might be the right time to pick them. It seemed obvious to even our child minds that they must be large enough now to pick. By the time we were finished picking the wooden picnic table on the back porch was completely covered with large, elongated green and yellow zucchini. The return of our parents was followed by weeks of meals incorporating zucchini and baking zucchini pound cakes to be stored for winter. Zucchini is the summer squash, it is unique in the vegetable kingdom for its ability to play a wide variety of roles in a meal. Like a great character actor that has no need to share the spotlight, zucchini is content to play its supporting role whether it be as part of ratatouille, a julienned side garnish for pan seared fish, or slow cooked in the oven for hours with tomato, pepper, eggplant and onion as for a byaldi.
HISTORY OF ZUCCHINI
Zucchini, Cucurbita pepo, is a member of the cucumber and melon family. Inhabitants of Central and South America have been eating zucchini for several thousand years, but the zucchini we know today is a variety of summer squash developed in Italy. The word zucchini comes from the Italian zucchino, meaning a small squash. The term squash comes from the Indian skutasquash meaning “green thing eaten green.” Christopher Columbus originally brought seeds to the Mediterranean region and Africa.
Summer squashes are native to the Americas and belong to the family of curcurbita. Archaeologists believe their origins can be traced to Mexico from 7,000 to 5,500 BCE. They were an integral part of the ancient diet of maize, beans, and squashes.
Long ago the French considered zucchini bland and watery until they figured out how to cook zucchini . The French call zucchini courgette, which can also be called yellow squash as well.
VARIETIES OF ZUCCHINI
As its name suggests summer squash or zucchini grows best from May to August. Although they are now available year-round cooking with zucchini has more meaning when bought from your local farmer or at the market. Its colors and freshness have the ability to inspire – to go beyond a simple preparation and into one of the great dishes it ought to be a part of.
Summer squash has soft, thin skin with edible seeds in contrast to the hard skin and large seeds of winter squash. Long and cylindrical and usually dark green in color, it has juicy white flesh that emits a faintly sweetish flavor. Over-ripe zucchini – the supersize type – will become more bitter by the day. Newer varieties such as the golden zucchini, globe or round zucchini have become available in farmer’s market in recent years. The golden variety is somewhat milder in taste than popular dark green type. Use the globe variety for stuffing and baking.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF ZUCCHINI
With their high water content (more than 95 percent), zucchini squashes are very low in calories. Zucchini boasts a rich nutritional profile, and offers important health benefits including phytonutrients, mineral and vitamin content. It is considered a good source of vitamin C, a water-soluble antioxidant that dissolves in your body fluids and protects your cells from free radicals (highly reactive compounds that oxidize your DNA, proteins and can cause cellular damage. Impressively, a single cup of chopped zucchini contains 22 milligrams of vitamin C, which is 24 percent of the recommended daily intake for men and 29 percent for women as stated by the Institute of Medicine.
HOW TO BUY ZUCCHINI
When buying zucchini try the farmers market or roadside farm stands in your local community. Look for zucchini that is free of blemishes, has no brown spots and is wrinkle-free. A chef will look at the stem end to guage when the zucchini was cut – if there are liquid droplets seeping from the cut stem then it was cut today. There are 3 sizes of zucchini to consider buying and all are good for their intended use. Baby or mini zucchini are ideal for a fricassé or stir fry. Due to their small size heat is able to penetrate easily making them quick to cook. Zucchini the length of you hand are ideal for sauteéing slices or roasting in the oven.
HOW TO STORE ZUCCHINI
Store zucchini in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer for a mximum 4 days. Do not wash until just before you are ready to use it. At the first sign of wrinkles use the zucchini immediately. Note that softness is a sign of deterioration often the interior will begin to turn brown before the exterior. Once cooked zucchini can be refrigerated up to two days before its flavor goes off.
HOW TO PREPARE ZUCCHINI
Zucchini can be prepared in a variety of ways depending on how you cut them. Cut across the width and the result is beautiful discs great for salads or pastas. Use a mandoline to julienne the zucchini into long thin strips that are perfect for stir frying or salads. Cut the zucchini into wedges for a unique shape that work best marinated in olive oil, garlic and thyme before roasting. Finally, cut the zucchini in half lengthways and replace the seed center with a stuffing of onions, sundried tomatoes and shredded cheese for baking a “gratin”.
BEST WAY TO COOK ZUCCHINI
Slicing zucchini thin allows it to be cooked quickly on high heat for stir fries or fricassé. Keeping it thick makes it ideal for roasting and grilling on the BBQ.
RECIPES FOR ZUCCHINI
EATING ZUCCHINI RAW
- Shred zucchini and carrots with a mandoline then add a vinaigrette and let rest for a few hours in the refrigerator
BEST WAY TO COOK ZUCCHINI
Zucchinis can be sauteéd, roasted, fried or stuffed as for a gratin.
- Baked: Slice zucchini, chop onions, shred carrots, chop peppers, chop tomatoes. Layer the vegetables in a casserole with seasonings and herbs. Cover bake at 350 for about 45 minutes.
- Stuffed: Core out the centers of each squash (use a pointy small spoon or melon baller). and toss with raw garlic and olive oil. Separately sauté a mixture of onions, garlic, red peppers and bread cubes. Season and add grated gruyere or provolone cheese. Bake uncovered in a casserole with tomato sauce at 350 for about 45 to 60 minute
- Roasted: Roasting a zucchini is quick and easy. Cut the zucchini thicker than normal in slices, batons or triangular wedges. Try to keep the sizes similar so it will cook evenly. Toss the zucchini, olive oil, thyme and crushed garlic in a stainless bowl with a pinch of salt. Roast 15 -20 minutes at 200° C (200° F) in an oven.