zuchini

My neighbor is almost keeping up with his prolific hills of zucchini squash. It appears he’s gathering a basket of zukes every day and stacking the larger ones on a small table at the end of his garden driveway accompanied by the ubiquitous, annual customary sign, “Free.” Despite the local superabundance of these vegetables, someone’s taking them home, for the configuration of the pile changes (and the newly added zukes appear to be perhaps an inch or so longer) every day.

The world record for an overlarge zucchini is eight feet, 3.3 inches long. It was raised by Giovanni Batista Scozzafava in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. You can read about this dirigible on Wikipedia.

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to claim proprietorship of such an enormous slug. When we sneak glances into our neighbors’ back yards, fearing they may have a plumper beefsteak tomato than ours, or a larger pumpkin, size matters only as one function of overall quality. My wife and my brother-in-law competed for years for the biggest pumpkin, we in West Barnet, he in sun-drenched balmy West Chatham, Cape Cod. He always won.

One year, finally, we found a perfect Howden on the vine, so beautifully proportioned it could’ve taken a Caledonia County Fair ribbon for symmetry and uniform color – but not for size. However, among our supply of toys for grandchildren was an ultra-realistic 12-inch long painted metal toy John Deere tractor and farm trailer. We balanced our perfect pumpkin on the tiny trailer. We parked the unit and its load on a low dirt mound, then sprawled flat on the ground and photographed them uphill against a background of treetops and sky. Sharon won the prize for the biggest pumpkin that year (but only that once).

But that was about pumpkins. The larger zucchinis grow, the less desirable they are, and the less edible. Unlike superfluous pumpkins that one can pile in one’s back meadow, just within rifle shot at the edge of the woods, for the deer to find and gnaw on, zucchinis, even though they look like like the riveted steel hull of a U.S. Navy submarine, begin to rot fairly quickly. Piled at the edge of the woods, if not buried very deeply, zucchinis will not last long enough to draw deer and will spawn a pandemic of zucchinis the following summer.

One summer, my late friend Alfred Fenton, a retired sportswriter and newspaper editor, through negligence allowed one to grow two and a half feet long. He estimated its girth to be nearly equal to the open maw of a rural mailbox. Nearly all mailboxes in his town are rural ones, on a post at the end of the owners’ driveway. His wife sent Alfie to the village for milk, a loaf of bread, and a dozen eggs, so he took his zucchini with him, and before making his stop at the Cumberland Farms store, he took out his pocket knife and etched his initials, AHF, and that day’s date in a tiny semi-circle around the flower end of what he had taken to calling the U.S.S. Poseidon (few will remember Phantom Below: The USS Poseidon, a bad movie about a submarine in our mini cold war with North Korea. It garnered a serious splatter of rotten tomatoes from the critics). Alfie drove to the other side of town, berthed his zuke in the random mailbox of folks he did not know. He then finished his errands and delivered the groceries to his wife. Two weeks later, he trudged out to his mailbox and discovered that his zucchini had found its way home.

But not for dinner. Large zucchinis, like kudzu and Virginia creeper, draw down the water table, reduce the nutrient value of your soil, and deny sunlight to vast spreads of otherwise useful land languishing in the umbrage of broad leaves (and fattening squashes). And large ones are unsuitable as human food. There may be more recipes for cooking with superfluous zucchini than with any other veggie. I’ve been reading them, in cookbooks, foodie magazines, and online. There is an infinity of ways to make zucchini bread, each differing from the others by some minute variation, a pinch of cinnamon here, dill there, two pinches of cayenne, a pinch of ancho chili powder, raisins here, yellow raisins there, nuts ad nauseam. I am an old man and remember being told as a child that there were starving Ethiopians who would be happy to eat my asparagus if I couldn’t. Generations of American food sufficiency have caused us to disarm our food-guilt by devising recipes to render overabundance of zucchini into unpalatable human food and vast acreage of unneeded corn into ethanol.

Among the very first dry cereals for human consumption was Grape-Nuts, made and marketed by C.W. Post in 1897. Given the novelty of dry cereal, Post found it advisable to state on the original printed packaging that the contents were “Grape-Nuts: a food.” Regarding the preparation of zucchini, especially any of the variants of zucchini bread or cake, the instructions ought probably to assert that “despite the presence of zucchini in the following, the result will be a food.” Were zucchini not so very quick to rot once harvested, it could be used much as dry milk solids, animal offal, and connective tissue by-products are in the bulking up of hotdogs and sausages. If you must grow zucchinis, raise pigs.

But enough of cynicism. In truth, there exist several really lovely things to do with these green squashes. There is a small cookbook’s worth of zucchini waffle recipes online, all of which are a lot of work and none of which will make you any happier than Bert Greene’s recipe for zuke pancakes (Bert Greene, Greene on Greens).

Bert’s Zucchini Pancakes:

  • 3 cups of trimmed grated zucchini, salted, drained in a colander, and squeezed in a towel.
  • 1 egg, beaten.
  • ¼ cup of milk.
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • ¼ tsp hot pepper sauce (or to your taste).
  • Freshly ground black pepper.
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour.
  • 1½ tsp baking powder.

Combine the strained zucchini with the egg, milk, cheese, and hot pepper sauce in a large bowl. Salt and pepper to taste. Sift the flour and baking powder and stir into the zukes, and mix well. Heat your greased skillet to medium-hot (not smoking), and cook the pancakes (about three tablespoons of batter per pancake). When they’re lightly browned (3 min), flip and cook for another minute. Serve with butter and maple syrup.

One way to minimize the need for a wheelbarrow to haul home your zucchini blimps is to harvest a lot of the plants when the squashes are no more than finger length. Jacques Pépin points out that baby zukes are an exception to the rule that infantile veggies are generally tasteless. To his recipe for baby zucchinis with chives (Jacques Pépin’s Baby Zucchinis with Chive from Heart and Soul in the Kitchen) I suggest adding a few pinches of cayenne. Trim a pound of baby zukes (ideally no longer than four-inches) and sautée, covered, until just lightly browned (4 minutes) in a neutral oil. Uncover, add a sprinkle of salt, a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper, a very light dusting of cayenne, a tablespoon of butter, and 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh chives. Cook uncovered, tossing often, for a minute. Don’t overcook: the zukes should still be slightly crunchy inside.

Even better, harvest the male squash blossoms on your zucchini plant before the squashes even form, and prepare Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms. Only the female blossoms will form squashes, and the male blossoms, having done their pollinating, will wither and drop off. You can minimize the proliferation of squashes by harvesting blossoms of both genders (the male blossoms have long, slender stems). Then dip the blossoms in batter and deep-fry them (it’s a bit of work; you can find the instructions in Rosso & Lukens, The New Basics Cookbook).

Ratatouille, a full-length Pixar animation about a mouse with a serious flair for cooking, is a great film that got a 97 percent positive rating from the Rotten Tomatoes critics. Moreover, the film focuses on how the making of a masterful ratatouille provençal, one of France’s greatest contributions to country-style cooking, saves a restaurant its four-star Michelin rating. This is the quintessential vegetable casserole, a magical dish (very slightly modified from the recipe in Rosso & Lukens, The New Basics Cookbook):

Ratatouille Provençal:

  • 1 eggplant (about 1 pound; cut into one-inch cubes).
  • 1 tsp salt.
  • 2 TBSPS olive oil.
  • 2 leeks (white part and ½ inch of the green), washed and cut into one-inch pieces.
  • 3 or 4 small zucchinis (about a pound, cut into one-inch cubes).
  • 3 minced garlic cloves.
  • 4 diced San Marzano tomatoes.
  • ½ cup pitted Niçoise or Kalamata olives.
  • 6 TBSPS basil pesto.
  • 6 fillets of coarsely chopped anchovies.

Freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Place eggplant cubes in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and allow to sweat for an hour. Then rinse, drain, pat dry. Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add leeks, cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the zucchini and garlic, cook for 3 more minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, olives, pesto, anchovies, black pepper, and eggplant. Transfer the mixture to an ovenproof casserole, cover, and bake for 20 minutes. Stir the ratatouille, and bake for another 25 minutes. Serve hot, with a robust red wine and crusty French bread for dipping and wiping.

I strongly advise that you not consult Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking regarding ratatouille for it will discourage you from cooking and will demand a day of your life in the preparation of her fastidious version of it. About French, though: An eggplant in French is une aubergine; a leek, un poireau; and a zucchini, une courgette. Foods not only taste better in French, they even sound better. Even zucchinis.

Bill Biddle is a retired teacher who worked at Northeastern University and Harvard. After moving to Vermont with his wife, artist Sharon Kenney Biddle, he co-led the Wilderness Program at St. Johnsbury Academy and taught writing at Lyndon State College.