Mother Nature may be signing off on summer in a matter of hours (the fall equinox is this Saturday, Sept. 22), but her sun-kissed handiwork will be in great supply for the next few weeks -- or until the first frost. Among the late-season goodies are zucchini and other members of the summer squash family. Procrastinators, this is your last call; before you know it, zucchini will be in the rear view window.
The zucchino (singular form of the Italian word “zucchini') is part of the extensive Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumber, watermelon and winter squash. In fact, both the winter and summer squash gangs belong to the same genus – Cucurbita pepo – an additional layer of botanical intimacy that defies physical appearance. What’s considered summer squash – zucchini, crookneck, straightneck and pattypan – is essentially the immature, tender-skinned and diminutive versions of their more durable, tough-skinned siblings such as butternut, hubbard and acorn.
Don’t let the word zucchini fool you into thinking summer squash got its start in Italy. In fact, along with its C. pepo brethren, zucchini is a native of the Americas, and an ancient one at that. Archeologists have located seeds in Mexican caves that suggest that C. pepo was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago.
Along with corn and beans, squash was one of the “three sisters” crops planted by native Americans. The word “squash” comes from the Narrangansett word “askutasquash,” translated as “green thing eaten raw.”
Before Christopher Columbus brought squash seeds to Europe, the summer plants were (and are still) known in the Americas as calabacitas, the dimunitive of calabaza (the generic word for squash).
Once in Europe, the Italians coined the big-boned relatives as zucca and its more petite kin as zucchino (though it’s hard to think of this prolific plant in the singular form). In France, it became known as courge and courgette, which is how they're referred to in the U.K.
Not until the 1920s did zucchini return to this side of the pond, thanks to Italian immigrants. To this day, zucchini is how many Americans refer to all summer squash.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, zucchini and other summer squash rank 23 out of 49, putting it somewhere in the middle of the pesticide load road. Summer squash deals with a fair share of insects as well as a powdery mildew, a temptation for conventional growers to spray crops.
Of more pressing concern is zucchini’s place at the GMO table. As of December, 2011, there are approximately 25, 000 acres of zucchini and yellow squash from genetically engineered seeds in commercial production, according to the Non-GMO Project.
In the absence of GMO labeling laws, consumers are in the dark when buying zucchini in the conventional marketplace, unless they are buying directly from growers at farmers markets, farm stands and through CSA programs. I recommend asking questions and buying as locally as possible.
A note on eating seasonally where you live: Because of its high water content (95 percent), zucchini is highly perishable. Its fragile state does not bode well for off-season imports (mostly from Mexico). Another reason to eat from your foodshed!
(See our veggie rule of thumb, below*.)
Like its cousin, the watermelon, zucchini is super low cal – 1 cup of raw zucchini is just 18 calories. A rich source of Vitamins B2, B6 and C, potassium (great for blood pressure), zucchini also offers decent amounts of fiber and even a little bit of protein. Step right up for some anti-inflammatory assistance and an antioxidant pep talk to boot.
No boo-boos, please. Leave the dull zukes behind (it means they're one step away from compost). Although tempting, the overgrown zucchini you see for a dollar at the farmers' market are better used as baseball bats than tonight’s supper. Wood pulp comes to mind.
Keep refrigerated until ready to use (wrapped in paper instead of plastic, which creates moisture), which should be within two or three days of purchase. Zucchini do not age well; they get mushy, moldy or both.
Don’t bother freezing; because of its high water content, thawed out zucchini will result in a disappointing puddly mess akin to a melted snowman.
In case you hadn’t noticed, zucchini and other summer squash are mild. Some might say bland. It does need help from more robust flavor companions. On the bright side, zucchini plays nicely with others – garlic, tomatoes, leafy herbs, olives, roasted peppers, onions and various cheeses, for starters. It also has the virtue of versatility. Zucchini can be sautéed, batter fried, stuffed, grated, grilled, gratineed, pureed and roasted – and I'm sure I'm missing something. Whatever you do, don’t boil it. Again, back to the 95 percent water content. Adding more water to the mix is the last thing you want to do. Think of cooking methods that will encourage water release and toughen the cell walls – grilling, frying, roasting.
Squash blossoms: Yay or nay? YAY. If they're still available at your farmers' market, do yourself a favor and buy a handful. I like to dredge them in a batter made from chickpea flour fry them like a pakora. They make for a light, crisp and super festive snack.
Speaking of party snacks, here’s a twist on guacamole using roasted zucchini and onions, which I've dubbed Zuke-a-mole.
But wait, there’s more: Zucchini has a sweet side, too, and I'm not talking about a breakfast quick bread from the Starbucks case. I'm talking about a Bundt-shaped chocolate cake that even with a heaping wholesome helping of grated zukes and heart-healthy olive oil, is decidedly more elegant than crunchy-granola, an impressive ending to a dinner party.
Now who wants cake?
Soft butter for greasing an angel food cake or Bundt-style pan
3 cups all-purpose flour (or white whole wheat flour)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ ; teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
3 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 pound zucchini, grated
1 cup semi or bittersweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Smear the bottom and the sides of an angel food cake or Bundt-style pan with the butter.
In a medium mixing bowl, place the flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt, and stir to combine.
In a large mixing bowl, beat sugar and eggs with an electric mixer, on medium high speed, for about two minutes, until light in color and thickened. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down sides of bowl. Gradually add oil in a steady stream while mixing. Continue to mix until batter is yellow in color (with olive oil, it will be slightly green) and thick, about 90 seconds. Beat in the applesauce.
Melt the unsweetened chocolate and add to the egg mixture. Stir in the grated zucchini, followed by the chocolate chips.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and place pan on a baking sheet. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool for 1 hour, then invert.
Makes about 12 servings.
(*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)