LONDON, Ont. – If you don’t know someone who’s trying to give away zucchini right now, you probably don’t know anyone who is growing it.
This summer squash grows easily and in great abundance, and if it’s not picked when it’s relatively small — 15 to 20 centimetres (six to eight inches) — an individual zucchini can grow as big as your arm. And the thing is, the big ones are just as edible as the little ones, although they may be a little more fibrous.
Fortunately, there is almost no end to the culinary uses of zucchini.
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“It grows so prolifically that when people had a lot of it, they got very inventive with what they would do with it,” says Yvonne Tremblay, a freelance recipe developer, food stylist and cookbook author from Mississauga, Ont.
She always cooks zucchini and cites classic dishes such as ratatouille (a traditional Provencal stew of eggplant, zucchini, onion, tomato and peppers) or grilled summer vegetable medleys among her favourite uses. It’s also great in soups.
But zucchini is equally good raw — shredded into slaw, sliced into green salads, eaten as a solo snack or as part of a crudite platter with dip.
It can also be made into jams, relishes and pickles, can be used as a substitute for pasta, can be cooked into lasagna or omelettes, used as a pizza topping, baked into chips or hollowed out and stuffed with almost anything from a mushroom mixture to cheese, meats, other vegetables or breadcrumb mixtures.
Before stuffing a zucchini to be baked, the hollowed-out shell should be slightly baked on its own, cut side down, to eliminate some of the moisture content, Tremblay advises.
It lends itself equally well as an ingredient in desserts, including cakes, cookies, chocolate brownies and endless varieties of breads or sweet loaves.
What makes zucchini so versatile is its mild taste. Some might even call it bland. But this makes it receptive to combinations with an endless selection of other foods.
Zucchini is classed as a summer squash, along with summer crookneck, pattypan and vegetable marrow, partly because it is available earlier in the growing season than most squashes but also because it is fairly fragile and cannot be stored for long periods.
According to Foodland Ontario, the designation of summer squash “dates back to a time when the seasons were more crucial to man’s survival than they are now. Good keepers became known as winter vegetables if they would keep until December.”
Unlike heartier winter squash, all parts of zucchini are edible, including the flowers, flesh, seeds and skin.
There are two main varieties — dark green, which may be striped or speckled, and bright yellow or golden. The two are “quite similar” in terms of taste, texture and moisture content, says Tremblay, although the yellow may be slightly milder.
There are also a few heirloom varieties, including an Italian zucchini called Ronde de Nice, which is round.
The word zucchini is Italian for “little squash,” but in some parts of the world it is known by its French name, courgette. Although thought of by most people as a vegetable, it is actually a fruit that develops (like tomatoes) from the blossoms on the vine.
To prepare, thoroughly scrub under running water until the skin feels clean. Be sure to taste a little raw zucchini before using as older produce can become quite bitter.
Fresh zucchini will keep in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for about a week. It also can be frozen. Experts suggest blanching it very briefly (about one minute) in boiling, unsalted water and then freezing pieces in a single layer on a tray before packaging. The texture will not be exactly the same as fresh zucchini when thawed, but it should still be firm.