I spy with my own eyes something green in my garden.
Now is that really fair? Well you could say that, given the lack of rain this year, the amount of green things in your garden is severely reduced. Or perhaps because in the last week Lexington has resembled a tropical rainforest, the green might just be weeds. The chances of guessing could be a lot closer to the right answer than not. And if you just happen to be a gardener who cherishes the “curcubita pepo” or “zucchino” of Italian lore, then you know what that green item is and what the future holds for you and countless unsuspecting neighbors: zucchini and lots of it.
From the small, unassuming seed of this cucumber cousin comes literally thousands of loaves of zucchini bread, multiple dozens of zucchini muffins and countless bowls of that nice, nice dish so simple a rat could cook it: ratatouille. Maybe I am exaggerating, but in my neighborhood the madness has already started. Not only have I purchased the vegetable (more on that later) at the Farmers Market, almost tempting the gods to inundate me, but two mysterious bags of the stuff with other assorted goodies have popped up on my car and front step like toadstools after a storm. The simple fact that my column will be consumed by zucchini this week is evidence of the power this small squash holds over all of us this time of year.
Alas it has always been thus. For thousands of years, natives of South and Central America have consumed not only the vegetable but also the botanical connection to its fruit heritage; the flower, in various stages of doneness, using a myriad of cooking techniques. When transported to the Old World via the Columbian Connection (not what you think) the zucchini underwent a period of suspicion and derision before the Italians once again came through. The French soon followed suit and the little squash that could became not only a delicacy (for its flower) but a staple of many a backyard gardener.
Extremely low in calories and moderate to high in nutrients such as folates and potassium the zucchini is much better small and skin on. The recipes that follow will not be earthshaking by any means and will not contain any for zucchini bread probably the precursor to banana bread. Instead I will focus on several techniques that bring out the best in the squash.
First, the raw or near raw application; true to the saying that everything old is new again, this was probably an accepted practice thousands of years ago. Slice the squash thinly down the length on a mandolin or even with a cheese slicer creating wide, thin ribbons, and season with salt, pepper, vinegars or citrus just to give it a jolt and leave to chill for 30 minutes. You may notice the moisture that collects in the bottom of the bowl, just like its relative the cucumber the moisture will drop from the squash with the addition of salt and aromatics. The result will be a crisp moist refreshing vegetable to serve as a chilled side or an appetizer with fresh tomato.
If you have the aforementioned mandolin you can set the blade for julienne and once again use the length of the squash to give you “noodles”. Whether it’s cream or a fresh tomato sauce you can mimic the pasta by tossing the raw zucchini noodles in towards the end of the cooking process. I warn you that they will disintegrate if left too long, or if the original squash had a large seed pack so choose wisely and don’t overcook.
Once the Italians got over their initial reluctance to eat the flower and vegetable of this New World ornamental vine they started breading and frying thin strips of it a la eggplant. It is worthwhile to revisit this technique provided you don’t over bread and lose the sweetness of the zucchini. The same can be said for batter frying. The batter should be light and airy (try a tempura batter) not leaden like some pub food I cooked in the early 80’s.
I would be remiss if I neglected ratatouille as a historically rich version of the zucchini. Larousse Gastronomique credits the southern city of Nice with the first and real ratatouille, a rich stew “made from onions, courgettes (zucchini), aubergines (eggplant), sweet peppers, and tomatoes simmered in olive oil with herbs.” There are many variations of course and the choice of garlic or no, and which herbs to use is a personal one. There are even versions that don’t have any zucchini; it is replaced by yellow squash.
My favorite is simply done, cubed vegetables with thinly sliced onion and garlic that seems to melt into the olive oil and fresh tomatoes with seeds and juice (no skin) lots of fresh herbs and cooked until rich and thick. I must confess that the Pixar version is a close second, artfully done by the unlikeliest of chefs, but more for the evocative results it brings. Ratatouille should do that; take you back to your childhood and melt your stone cold heart.
Finally it is logical to me that you would find zucchini as part of a dessert. Remember the fried ribbons? Roll them gently in the egg wash and sweetened bread crumb; fry in olive oil, and while still warm wrap them around fresh figs and mascarpone cheese and drizzle with great, not good balsamic vinegar.
I promised you I would revisit the Farmers Market reference I made earlier and here perhaps is the most promising recipe yet. Take two boys who don’t like vegetables, cook them fresh, local zucchini sliced thin in hot olive oil with crushed local garlic, salt and pepper. Watch them gobble the little slices up before they eat their roast chicken…
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.