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Zucchini

METRO photo

By Barbara Beltrami

From the Neanderthal clubs to the delicate little cigar-sized courgettes and everything in between, the season’s bumper crop of zucchini has arrived. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sautéing them in a little butter or olive oil, there are so many options for integrating them successfully into somewhat more complex recipes, that it would be a shame to limit oneself to the basic preparation.

There are ratatouilles and quiches, pastas and soups, casseroles and omelets, and so much more. Three zucchini recipes among the many that I’ve been using for years are those for Chocolate Zucchini Cake given to me by the mother of my daughter’s elementary school teacher, Zucchini-Tomato Fritters, an attempt to re-recreate those my grandmother made and Zucchini Soup from a woman who worked for my father.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

YIELD: Makes 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS:

For the cake:

Unsalted butter and flour for preparing pan

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup cocoa powder (not Dutch process)

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon espresso coffee powder

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 medium zucchini, washed, grated, drained and squeezed dry

For the icing:

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken   into pieces

DIRECTIONS:

For the cake:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour bottom and sides of 9”-square cake pan. In a small bowl toss chocolate chips with one tablespoon of the flour; in medium bowl whisk together remaining flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and espresso coffee powder. In a large bowl with mixer on medium speed beat together sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla until smooth; add flour mixture and beat two minutes on medium speed until well combined; add zucchini and beat another two minutes until well blended; fold in chocolate chips. Transfer batter to prepared pan; bake until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cool completely on rack.

For the icing:

In a heavy saucepan, boil cream, turn off heat, stir in chocolate and let rest until completely melted; if necessary stir with rubber spatula to hasten melting. Transfer to room temperature bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to ice cake. Serve cake with chocolate or coffee ice cream.

Zucchini-Tomato Fritters

YIELD: Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

2 medium zucchini

2 teaspoons salt

4 scallions, minced

1 medium tomato, finely diced

1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, minced

1/4 cup fresh dill, minced

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup flour

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Grate zucchini into colander; sprinkle with salt, toss and set over bowl to drain for 15 minutes. Remove, squeeze dry and place in a medium bowl. Add scallions, tomato, parsley, dill, egg, flour and cheese; mix well. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm oil; add batter by heaping tablespoonfuls and flatten with spatula or back of spoon; fry until golden, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot or warm with fish, poultry, meat or beans.

Zucchini Soup

YIELD: Makes 4 to 6 servings

INGREDIENTS:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

4 medium or 2 large zucchini, chopped

3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS:

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat warm oil; stirring frequently, cook onion in oil until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add zucchini, stir, then add broth; stir again. Raise heat to high, bring soup to a boil, then lower to keep at a simmer and stir occasionally until zucchini is very soft and mushy, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add salt and pepper, if necessary. Let cool at least 15 minutes, then puree in batches in blender or food processor until very smooth and creamy. Serve hot, cold, at room temperature or cold with croutons and a tomato salad.

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Ann Marie's Farmstand in Port Jefferson Station displays some of the many different varieties of squash available in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Squash, the genus Cucurbita, are grown today extensively throughout the world as a food source. They are one of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash), which were developed in the Americas and then taken by European explorers back home.

One of them, zucchini is so closely associated with Italian cooking that most people don’t realize that it is a native of the Americas, not Italy.

Squash are generally grouped in two categories, summer squash and winter squash. Most are vines and, although some are perennials, they are grown in temperate regions as annuals. The plants easily self-seed. I’ve even seen them growing along sidewalks from seeds that overwintered from decorative pumpkins left outside.

Incidentally, although gourds look similar to squash, they are not native to the Americas, but rather Africa.  The same is true of melons. Gourds and melons, however, are related to squash (family Cucurbitaceae, but a different genus).

Ann Marie's Farmstand in Port Jefferson Station displays some of the many different varieties of squash available in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Ann Marie’s Farmstand in Port Jefferson Station displays some of the many different varieties of squash available in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Squash, botanically are fruit, in the same way that tomatoes are. They are the ripened seed pod of the plant. Summer squash are harvested in summer, before the skin hardens. Summer squash include zucchini, yellow summer squash, scallop squash and yellow crookneck squash.

Winter squash are harvested in fall, after the skin has hardened. Therefore, these squash need to be peeled before use. Varieties of winter squash include hubbard squash, turban squash, pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash. We tend to think of winter squash as traditionally served at Thanksgiving (pumpkin pie and butternut squash in particular); however, spaghetti squash is available in supermarkets year round and is frequently roasted and served with tomato sauce, in place of spaghetti made from wheat to cut down on carbs.

Squash are known for their high vitamin content (particularly A) and trace minerals, making them an excellent addition to the diet.

My favorite butternut squash recipe takes butternut squash cubes cooked with sausage, thyme, salt and pepper in a skillet in chicken or beef broth with some onions until the sausage and squash are done.

Squash blossoms are edible as well. The ones generally seen in markets are zucchini blossoms. They are usually fried, but they can be baked, stuffed with cheese and spices, served with spaghetti or in soups. There are plenty of recipes online to satisfy all.

Since zucchini plants are so prolific, you’ll still get plenty of squash if you eat some of the flowers.

Squash grows in a wide variety of soil types but does need fertilizer (for example, composted manure). They produce the most fruits in sun. They grow in a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.5 (very acidic to mildly alkaline, with 7 being neutral). They can be grown in large containers, so if you have a small yard, you can put the container on a deck or patio.

According to the seed company Burpee, cucurbits don’t like to have their roots disturbed, so either plant them directly outside, start them in peat pots, which can be planted whole in the garden, or buy seedlings from a nursery, being careful not to disturb the roots. They also suggest adding fertilizer when the plants begin to blossom and set fruit since squash are heavy feeds (like tomatoes).

Like tomatoes, these are tender plants. They like warm soil (so don’t put them out too early in a cool spring) and need a steady supply of water, so be aware of weeks of little or no rain.

Winter squash can also be used as outdoor decorations in the fall. Some squash develop into really weird shapes naturally while others are accidental crosses between two varieties producing things like green pumpkins.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.