Italian for “small gourd”, zucchini have become as common a staple to the North American household as carrots or corn. Especially loved by gardeners for their simple growing requirements and their abundant harvest, zucchini are a versatile food that is good for your waistline, heart, and taste buds!
Members of the Cucurbitaceae family (like other squash), zucchini is typically long and cylindrical and has a thin freckled skin, similar to a cucumber. But, fruit from this member of the Italian marrow squash can also be found in round and other odd shapes. Zucchini is often grown for its yellow flowers, used before they develop fruit.
Zucchini are a mandatory component for creating the dish ratatouille. They are perfect when combined with oil, butter, or frying. Their flavour can be mild, so zucchini often needs a little boost in flavor by adding spices such as garlic, thyme, or rosemary, or by being paired with other vegetables. One of our favorite dishes simply combines diced zucchini with corn, red peppers, onions, and jalapenos, tossed with a bit of our pork and poultry rub and oil, then roasted until caramelized.
The color of zucchini varies from yellow to near black to lighter shades of green, some with stripes and others without. Many varieties exhibit various degrees of speckling, and others have ridges resembling a cucumber. While found in their dark green form in many market stalls, don’t be surprised to find them called “grisette” (grey) in Provence, or “Aurore” or “Reine-des-Noires” depending on their shade of green. In addition to being named by their color, they may be referred to by their regional name, such as courgette, summer squash, or marrow squash.
Rich in carotene, pectin, Vitamins A and B, zucchini also provides heart healthy fiber, folic acid, potassium, and magnesium, with extremely low levels of fat and sodium.
Although the zucchini is available year round, summer is without question the best time to buy because its prime growth period is late summer. This is also the point in the season where its flavor is at its peak. Zucchini tastes best when young, small, and heavy for its size. Look for firm zucchini that is regular in shape without blemishes or yellow patches, and with a tight, shiny skin. Smaller zucchini are preferable, since as they get bigger their flesh becomes stringy, tough, and bland, and the number of seeds within increases.
Zucchini has the best shelf life when kept in a dark, cool place. Kept dry in a plastic bag, zucchini should last at least one week in the refrigerator. Whole or sliced zucchini do not take well to freezing because of their high water content. However, it is possible to shred or grate the zucchini, squeeze out excess moisture, and then freeze it. This is nice for when you want to use zucchini in baked applications such as zucchini bread.
Zucchini can be prepared in a variety of ways, which makes it a great vegetable for use in virtually any dish. Be careful though…few things are less appetizing than overcooked zucchini, which becomes mushy, limp and sometimes bitter.
Steaming: Toss steamed zucchini into a casserole or nibble on individual slices for a healthy snack. Zucchini can be steamed whole, sliced, or diced.
Boiling: Boil whole zucchini over medium heat in an uncovered pot filled halfway with water. It takes less than 10 minutes. Remember to wash and slice off the ends first.
Frying: Make a crispy appetizer or party item by dipping unpeeled slices in an egg wash and breadcrumbs, and then fry in hot vegetable oil.
A traditional item that has made a comeback on expensive dinner menus is fried zucchini flowers. Baby zucchini flowers are usually stuffed with some sort of savory filling, dipped in an egg and flour mixture, and either deep fried in oil or placed on a griddle and flipped like pancakes.
Baking: Zucchini is delicious oven roasted–either alone or with other vegetables. For a simple side-dish full of flavor, simply drizzle slices of zucchini with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast in a 350º oven until tender (length of time depends on thickness of slices). You can also substitute zucchini in your banana bread or pumpkin bread recipe to make the classic zucchini bread – a real treat that even your kids will love.
Grilling: If you find yourself facing a large size zucchini, you don’t necessarily have to throw it away. Slice into 1/2 – 3/4 inch rounds, drizzle with olive oil, season with your favorite dry rub, and throw them on the grill for about 8 – 10 minutes. Grilled, seasoned zucchini adds a whole new dimension of flavor to your sandwiches, lasagna, pasta sauces, pizza toppings, or casseroles.