My go-to vegetable? It's zucchini.
Sure, when I'm feeling expansive I might go for asparagus, or when I'm really feeling flush I might hit the broccoletti or the artichokes. But for an ordinary, come-home-from-work-on-Wednesday bit of greenery, it's often zucchini for me. Or green beans, but that isn't important right now.
And why not zucchini? It's inexpensive -- last week, I bought it for 99 cents a pound -- it grows by the bushel, and despite being known as summer squash, it is available all year long.
Besides, there is something about it that seems ever so slightly … mysterious. Or exotic. The dark-green skin seems ordinary enough, but the pale flesh is always just a little firmer than you think it will be and the taste is just a bit earthier.
All in all, it is a most satisfying vegetable -- even if, like eggplant, it is actually a fruit.
And I am not the only person who is fond of zucchini. In a 2005 poll taken in England, zucchini (or courgettes, as they are called there) came in as the 10th most popular vegetable in the country. Onions were first, favored by an astonishing 55 percent of the 2,000 respondents. Brussels sprouts were fifth, named by 6 percent of the people who took the poll. The percentages of the respondents choosing the vegetables below fifth place were not recorded, but we can safely assume that zucchini are the favorite vegetables of well less than 6 percent of the population of England, and far fewer than those who love Brussels sprouts.
So obviously I have a small amount of zucchini-loving company, at least in England.
But they are so versatile. They can be fried, grilled, baked, roasted, sauteed, stewed, or eaten raw. And they can be delicious additions to dishes where you would never expect to find them.
For instance, consider one of the most popular applications of the zucchini: zucchini bread. What possibly could have been the thought process of the first person to make it? There he was, setting out to make a loaf of sweet bread, and at some point he said, "Do you know what would make this bread even better? I'll bet a pile of grated zucchini would do the trick."
Perhaps that first zucchini bread-baker was trying to do what so many before and after him have done: make use of zucchini's chameleon-like ability to hide undetected in other dishes, quite possibly as a way to use up an absurdly large harvest from a single vine.
And maybe that was the same thought that went into creating zucchini bread's less well-known cousin, zucchini muffins. We tried a recipe from the always enticing Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. Unlike zucchini bread, these muffins are savory. That fact caused a bit of confusion for one colleague who tried one but could not overcome his anticipation that it would be sweet. Other colleagues, though, raved about them, and well they should: along with buttermilk and melted butter, they are packed with such goodies as cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, and dill. What's not to love?
For some down-home flavor -- if by "down-home" you are referring to the Tidewater area of Virginia -- we cooked up a batch of country zucchini. Cooking it is as easy as pie, or somewhat easier. It begins with what is now recognized as just about everyone's favorite ingredient, bacon, and then adds sliced zucchini and sliced onions. These are cooked until the bacon is brown and the zucchini and onions are soft, and then plenty of ground pepper and salt are added (the salt comes after cooking rather than before because some bacon is saltier than others). The flavors play off each other in a way that is positively intoxicating.
After the bacon, we wanted to try something light, so we whipped up a refreshing marinated zucchini and yellow squash salad. Though it requires a few hours to marinate, it is an easy dish to make. Simply use a vegetable peeler to cut long ribbons of zucchini and yellow squash, and let these soak in a sweet and sour wash of cider vinegar, sugar, and a bit of salt. The salad's secret is its dressing, a splash of vibrant green basil oil you make yourself.
The dressing requires a fair amount of fresh basil -- 1/2 cup of packed leaves may be more than you think. Blanch them in boiling water, and then whir them together in a food processor with a blanched garlic clove, and just a little lemon juice and olive oil. Served with small cubes of mozzarella cheese, the salad is delightfully light and fresh. And because the recipe comes from health.com, it is also healthy, at just 159 calories a serving.
One unusual and clever way to serve zucchini is to remove the middle part of it and fill it with something else. That's the theory behind zucchini capricciose with salmon and leeks, a surprisingly delicious combination of dissimilar flavors. "Capricciose" is Italian for "capricious," and the dish is indeed a bit whimsical, with chunks of zesty smoked salmon sticking up out of boats of zucchini. Before being baked, it is drenched in a light rain of heavy cream.
For something a bit heartier, we recommend a Greek zucchini stew called kolokythia yakhni. This dish is slow-cooked, if 35 minutes on the stove can be considered slow cooking, as a way to encourage the flavors to blend. Made from the familiar combination of zucchini, tomatoes, and onions, this stew gets its punch from a sparing use of mint and dill. For added depth and bulk, little new potatoes would only make it even better.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 medium onion, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Place bacon in the bottom of a large skillet over medium-low heat, and add zucchini and onions on top of it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon begins to brown, about 20 minutes. Cover and continue cooking until zucchini and onions are soft. Add salt and plenty of pepper to taste.
Yield: 4 servings
Vermont Summer Muffins
3 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup grated zucchini
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2-3 tablespoons chopped scallions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 350°.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Add the cheese, zucchini, parsley, scallions, and dill and toss lightly to mix. In another bowl, beat the eggs and then whisk in the buttermilk and melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the flour-zucchini mixture and stir just enough to blend.
Spoon the batter into buttered or sprayed muffin tins, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden.
Yield: 18 muffins
Source: Adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, by The Moosewood Collective
Greek Zucchini Stew (Kolokythia Yakhni)
2 medium onions, sliced
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound tomatoes, chopped, OR 1 (14-16) ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper
2 pounds small zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and sliced
1 teaspoon minced mint leaves
1 teaspoon minced dill, ( 1/2 teaspoon dried)
In a saucepan over medium-low heat, gently stew the onions in the olive oil until soft but not brown -- about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sugar and cook for another 10 minutes. Then pour in the water, add salt and pepper, and stir well. When the tomato sauce has come to a boil, add the zucchini with the mint and dill. Cook gently until the zucchini is very tender, about 15 minutes. Let stand for 20 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings
Source: The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Zucchini Capricciose with Salmon and Leeks
2 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing
2 leeks, white parts only, chopped
3 ounces smoked salmon, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
Cook the zucchini in salted, boiling water for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain, halve lengthwise, and scoop out the flesh. Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease an ovenproof dish with butter. Melt the butter in a skillet, add the leeks, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the smoked salmon and remove the skillet from the heat. Spoon the mixture into the zucchini "shells" and place in the prepared dish. Season with salt, spoon the cream over the filled shells, and bake for 10 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: The Silver Spoon
Marinated Zucchini and Yellow Squash Salad
1/2 cup cider vinegar
4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
2 yellow squash
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
Combine vinegar, sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt until sugar dissolves. Trim ends of zucchini and squash; cut into thin ribbons with vegetable peeler. Add to vinegar mixture. Cover and chill 2 hours or overnight.
Bring a small pan of water to a boil; add garlic. Remove with a slotted spoon after 1 minute. Rinse under cold water; set aside. Add basil to boiling water; immediately remove and rinse under cold water. Reserve 1 tablespoon of cooking liquid. Transfer garlic and basil to a food processor, and add lemon juice, olive oil, reserved water, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Process until smooth. You may have to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula many times to achieve this.
Drain squash, and divide among 4 plates. Top with cubed mozzarella, and drizzle with basil oil.
Yield: 4 servings