Zucchini: Summer's Abundant Treasureby Roberta Roberti
Right around the time -- about late June -- when the days start getting longer and lazier and the aroma of grass seems to linger in the air, something happens in zucchini patches everywhere. Beautiful golden flowers start budding, heralding the birth of new, beautiful zucchini. Copious amounts of zucchini. Come summertime, they appear in abundance, much to the bewilderment of many home farmers. And perpetuating this universal truth is the fact that August 8th is Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day. Yes, that's the day you are encouraged to unload all that wonderful squash you don't know what to do with onto your unsuspecting next-doors.
All squash varieties originated in the New World and have been consumed for thousands of years. Squash seeds have been found in Mexican caves that date to 9000 B.C. Known as "vegetables of the vine," squash was so important to the Native Americans for their survival that the Iroquois referred to squash, beans, and corn as the three life-sustaining sisters.
By a twist of fate, the zucchini we know today, cucurbita pepo, was introduced into American culture by Italy. Squash was brought to Europe during the American Colonial period and through a freak of nature -- a naturally occurring mutation -- zucchini was born. Zucchini is a summer squash, in a group called marrow, and is related to cucumbers and melons. (Notice the similarity of its Latin name to the word "cucumber.") Botanically speaking, the zucchini is a fruit and grows on the female flower.
The word squash comes from the Narraganset Indian word askutasquash, meaning "green things that may be eaten raw" (as documented in A Key into the Language of America, by Roger Williams, in 1643) because the Narragansets would eat pumpkins, also in the squash family, when they were still green. Settlers took the word and shortened it. The word zucchini is actually an Italian word meaning "little squash" and is the plural of zucchino. (Italians sometimes also use the female form, zucchina, when referring to only one squash, making the plural zucchine.) In the U.S., we use the male plural, zucchini, whether referring to one or many. In several English-speaking countries, zucchini is referred to by its French name, courgette. (Ironically, the French initially turned their noses up at zucchini, feeling that it was watery and insipid.) When Italians began immigrating to the U.S., they brought their zucchini with them. This most likely occurred in California in the early part of the 20th century.
The world of zucchini doesn't begin and end with the dark green ones. There is yellow zucchini, sometimes called summer squash, and white zucchini, which is actually pale green. In Italy, there is another type known as cocozella di Napoli, "Neapolitan squash." Called "vegetable marrow" in English, it looks just like zucchini except that it has white stripes going down its length. Although smaller squashes tend to be more flavorful, vegetable marrow is ideal for recipes in which the squash is to be stuffed because of its large size and shape.
Pattypan squash, also called sunburst or golden scallop, is squat and flower-like and comes in green, white, and yellow. A special treat, if you can find it, is a specimen simply called Italian squash (and, unofficially, bottle gourd). This is an extremely long, pale green squash that appears occasionally at vegetable stands and farmers markets. (Actually, these are all technically marrow and not zucchini, but they have similar flavor and texture and can be interchanged. Some are slightly firmer than the standard zucchini we are accustomed to and may require a few minutes longer to cook.)
Zucchini is a dieter's dream vegetable because it is low in calories (15 calories per 100 grams). It is a good source of folate, manganese, vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin A, among other nutrients, and it has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure.
When buying zucchini, look for ones that are firm and heavy for their size and do not wash them until you are ready to use them because they have a short shelf life. Zucchini skin can sometimes be rough and hold dirt, so if it feels gritty, gently scrub it with a vegetable scrubber or plastic scouring pad, or lightly scrape it with a small knife. They come in a range of sizes, from very small to very large. In fact, you'd be surprised how large they can get. The world's longest zucchini is recorded at 6 feet 4 inches, grown in 2003 in Niagara Falls, NY.
If you haven't figured it out by now, zucchini is one the most beloved vegetables in Italian cuisine. But the true gem, the prized treasure, is the zucchini blossom. Zucchini blossoms, or squash blossoms, are the flowers of the zucchini plant. Goldenrod flowers, beautifully accented with splashes of green and orange, are a summer delicacy. Italians, as well as Greeks, use them frequently in their cuisines. They can be battered and fried like fritters, layered in frittatas, or cooked as part of a vegetable mélange. (You can use the blossoms of other squashes -- such as pumpkin or acorn -- this way too.) A blossom's flavor is so subtle, so delicate, as to be almost impossible to describe. It is reminiscent of its parent vegetable, yet nothing like it. It is sweet, yet almost imperceptibly so. There is nectar there, but none that can be seen with the human eye. It veritably melts in the mouth, promising the tongue a blast of flavor, but teasing with the merest hint of something wonderful. In other words, you'll just have to try it yourself to know what a blossom tastes like.
Since squashes are native to the Americas, zucchini blossoms appear frequently in Native American jewelry. The squash blossom necklace is one of the most popular and most beautiful pieces of Navajo jewelry (although historians say that the blossoms on the necklace are actually pomegranate flowers, changed for cultural significance). Blossoms represent spring and renewal. They are a good source of beta-carotene, as evidenced by their bright colors -- the more yellow, orange and red something is, the more beta-carotene it has -- and have moderate amounts of vitamin C. They are very fragile and should be handled carefully. You might find them at very good farmer's markets and at pick-your-own farms at some pretty hefty prices, but your best chance of getting some is to grow zucchini yourself. Or make friends with your neighbors who grow them!
If you pick them yourself, be sure not to pick female blossoms. Female blossoms are attached to growing zucchini and if you remove them, the fruit will no longer grow. Once you have picked the blossoms, very gently pry them open and rinse them under cool running water to remove any dirt or insects. Some people like to remove the pistil from the flower (a long nubby piece in the center). This can be tricky to do without tearing the blossom. If the flower is large enough, put the end of a spoon handle in there and break it off. It is perfectly edible, however, and if you choose not to remove it, just check it to make sure it is free of insects -- ants like to get cozy inside the opening of the pistil. Once you're rinsed them, lay them on a cloth or paper towel to dry. Use them as soon as possible, as they deteriorate quickly. If you need to hold on to them for a couple of days, lay them flat in a tightly sealed container or baggie and refrigerate them. You cannot freeze them; however, you can stuff and cook them and then freeze them.
Aside from all of these wonderful qualities, zucchini has one other benefit that you won't find written about in any scientific journals. According to pagan belief, zucchini is a lunar food, meaning that it is ruled by the moon, and one of its properties is its ability to comfort. So before you deposit your excess zucchini on your neighbor's doorstep, use some for these fabulous recipes for your dinner. If you've had a bad day, you may find yourself soothed and a lot calmer.
In a 10-inch nonstick pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent and the garlic is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato, parsley, and basil. Stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add the zucchini, cover the pan, and cook until they are tender, about 5 to 8 minutes.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs well. Add the zucchini mixture from the pan, along with the remaining ingredients; mix well. Pour the mixture back into the same pan, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat until the eggs are firm and the underside is well browned, about 10 to 13 minutes. Slide the frittata onto a plate; invert it onto another plate and slide it back into the pan. Continue cooking until the underside is well browned, about another 5 minutes. Slide the frittata onto a serving plate. Cut it into wedges and serve it hot or at room temperature.
Sautéed Zucchini with Tomatoes
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then cut each half into thirds lengthwise. Slice them 1/4-inch thick slices.
Heat the oil in a medium pan. Add the onions and sauté them over medium heat until they are soft and translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Toss in the garlic and sauté for another minute. Stir in the tomatoes and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients plus ½ cup water and mix. Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is soft, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve alone with fresh bread or over rice or pasta.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Squash Blossom Fritters
6 zucchini blossoms
Gently rinse the zucchini flowers under a soft, slow stream of water. Cut off the stems of the blossoms close to the base. Carefully open the petals and remove the pistil. Rinse the insides gently, making sure to remove any insects that may be there. Pat them dry with a paper towel.
Place the flour in shallow bowl. In another small bowl, beat the egg with the salt. Place paper towels on a dish and set it near the stove.
Heat about an inch of oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed pan. Dip the flowers, one by one, into the egg, turning them over to coat both sides. Then dip them into the flour, coating both sides. Carefully place each one in the hot oil in a single layer.
Cook them just until the flour puffs up and becomes lightly browned, about 15 to 20 seconds on each side. Drain them on the paper towels. They are best served warm but they can be eaten cold, as well.
Makes 6 fritters.
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