Flash in the Pan 

Zucchini: four questions

In my old neighborhood, doors were locked only during zucchini season. This forced would-be zucchini donors to leave their boxes on the porch, like abandoned babies on church steps.

The growers feel a sense of responsibility not to let their food go to waste, but become so sick of zucchini they couldn't possible eat them all. As the zucchini pile up, they begin acting like zombies. Granted, they're zombies that can't walk toward you with their arms out in front of them, but they keep coming nonetheless, no matter how many stir-fries, fritters, pizzas, and tamales you throw them at.

So here are answers to four burning questions about zucchini that will help you appreciate, utilize and understand this crop that, as we speak, is taking over gardens across the northern hemisphere.

Big or Small?

While any size zucchini is edible, the quality starts to decline practically as soon as they're big enough to see with the naked eye, and any zucchini larger than the average cucumber should be avoided. The seeds get bigger, the skin gets thicker, and the flesh starts to dry out. Many European shoppers won't buy a zucchini that doesn't still have a flower attached.

Speaking of zucchini blossoms, harvesting and eating them is a great way to keep your zucchini supply under control, as you're literally nipping future zucchini in the bud. Maxime Bouneou, a French chef in New Mexico, makes wonderful stuffed zucchini flowers. He prefers the blossoms that have a little pinky of new fruit growing from them, as if there is extra pleasure to be had in cradle-robbing. Or maybe zombies have traumatized him.

A final note on the big vs. small dichotomy: the difference between summer squash, of which the zucchini is a member, and winter squashes like acorn or butternut, is that summer squashes are eaten while young and tender during summer, and winter squash varieties are consumed after they harden in fall.

Yellow or Green?

Shoppers at farmers markets often gravitate to yellow zucchini because they look pretty on a plate. Conventional wisdom says they taste the same. I detect a mild, off-putting pungency in the aftertaste of yellows, though I have yet to find anyone who agrees with me on this, and some people find the yellow ones sweeter.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

According to eleven-year-old Natasha Slotnick, currently growing up on a farm in Montana, "Yellow is weirder on the inside and the outside is thicker." Natasha's mom Kim has tried growing several varieties of yellow zucchini and she says they all develop a thicker skin at a younger age than green ones, so she harvests them even younger than she does the greens. Chef Maxime doesn't like yellow zucchini because they have "way too much seed in them and the flesh is drier. It looks like a washed-up vegetable that never sees the sun. I don't find it has very much quality, culinary-wise."

Ironically, yellow zucchini are often more expensive than greens, which is yet another reason to avoid them.

Fresh or Frozen?

Like most food, zucchini is better fresh. But before you allow a pile of zucchini to guilt-trip you into eating more than your body is designed to appreciate, remember: it's quick and easy to put that zucchini in frozen storage for later.

The University of Missouri recommends steam-blanching unpeeled grated zucchini for 1 to 2 minutes until translucent. Drain well and pack in containers sized to fit your favorite recipes. Cool by placing the containers in cold water. Seal and freeze. If watery when thawed, drain the liquid before using the grated zucchini.

Frozen grated zucchini can be a commodity in winter, successfully assimilating in a surprising number of dishes, from tomato sauce to stuffing to chocolate zucchini mayonnaise cake. When added to most dishes, grated zucchini keeps a low profile, quietly adding body, moisture and nutrients to the dish.

Sweet or Savory?

When you have more zucchini than neighbors to dump it on, you don't have to choose between sweet and savory recipes, because zucchini goes both ways.

Clotilde Dusoulier, Parisian foodie and author of the blog Chocolate & Zucchini, writes that she hadn't even tried the two together when she chose that name. She simply liked the contrast between earthy, healthy zucchini and decadent chocolate. It turns out that chocolate and zucchini play well together in both sweet and savory applications.

On her blog, Dusoulier shares an adaptation of a family chocolate cake recipe that she's modified to include zucchini. It's very involved, but worth checking out. Alas, my family doesn't have its own chocolate cake recipe. But growing up we did usually have a jar of Hellmann's mayo in the fridge, and Hellmann's mayo always has recipes on the label, one of which was for chocolate mayonnaise cake. (You can find the recipe at Hellmanns.com.) This became the closest thing I had to a family chocolate cake recipe, and it opened the door to a realization I've lived by ever since: you can put mayo in practically anything and make it better.

You could almost say the same thing about zucchini, including in chocolate cake. I've had good luck adding grated zucchini to the Hellmann's chocolate mayonnaise cake, as well as many other chocolate cake recipes, including boxed mixes. The shreds of zucchini melt into the batter and don't interfere with the baking process, while adding moisture, fiber, and bulk to the finished product, even as it remains in the background, virtually undetected.

And on the savory side, a great summertime zucchini option is to sauté zucchini chunks with chopped onions until soft, then add fresh cut corn, garlic, crushed chiles, black pepper, and soy sauce. It's kind of like succotash, but there is no suffering involved.

If only all zombies were so easily subdued as zucchini.

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