Bigger Isn’t Better: The Italian Zucchini Secrets
In midsummer, food writers feel compelled to advise their readers on how to survive an imminent zucchini invasion. The topic generates a slew of photographs of amateur gardeners heaving their 20-pound wonders along with countless new or recycled recipes for zucchini bread, muffins and the like to cope with a bumper crop of these monster vegetables.
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Tips for best flavor, whether growing, or buying zucchini:
PLANTING: For a family of four to six zucchini lovers, resist planting more than three. One plant alone can produce up to nine pounds of fruit in a season. The plants will continue to produce small fruits, providing you keep harvesting them.
PICKING: If you must grow them larger than the Italians do, stop at 6 inches. The larger they grow, the more water they retain and the blander they taste. Larger specimens won’t brown easily when you sauté them because all that moisture discourages searing.
WHEN BUYING: Cylindrical zucchini should be no larger than 6 inches, brightly colored, and rigid, never spotty or wrinkled. The new (though in my opinion, not improved) spherical Eight-Ball variety is an ideal shape for stuffing, but if it’s harvested when larger than a softball, the skin is leathery, the flesh flavorless, and the center is filled with large seeds.
ABOUT THOSE MONSTERS: No matter how much you’d like to believe the plethora of late summer articles that give advice for how to salvage overgrown zucchini, it is close to useless. If you can’t pawn them off on your neighbors, maybe they’re good for one thing, zucchini bread!
STORING: Chill fresh zucchini in the vegetable drawer of a refrigerator for a few days, if you must. Limp or wrinkled zucchini are ready for the compost pile, not your recipe.
COOKING: Young zucchini should not be peeled. Boil, steam, braise, stew, bake, roast, grill, broil, sauté, crumb-fry, batter-fry, hash, stuff, marinate (sweet and sour), or pickle them. Substitute them for nearly any of your favorite eggplant recipes, including eggplant alla parmigiana. Bake them into frittatas or zucchini pâtes; alternate them lasagna style between layers of flat noodles, tomato sauce and melting cheese.
In contrast, the Italians eagerly anticipate the young squash’s first appearance in spring and seem to have no shortage of recipes at their fingertips for nurturing its true flavor throughout the summer. The problem with our bounty of zucchini is that these large specimens have lost their sweetness and distinctive taste, and we resign ourselves to eating them even when they have outgrown their welcome. No wonder we are drowning them in cake batter and compensating for their blandness with cinnamon and sugar. If we pick our zucchini sooner, in the prime of their youth, we’ll love them more and welcome their abundance. Then we could start out with these words instead: “Only once a year do we have a chance to eat the delicate little squashes of summer.” For if they are to live up to their name (zucca, “squash”; zucchini, “little squash”), they should be small, very small.
The Italians will tell you that the zucchina or zucchino, called zucchini in America, the anglicized plural form, should be no longer than 3½ inches, and is best eaten within one hour of picking. It is at this stage of development that the squash tastes like something and gives meaning to what one Italian cook called “a lavish gift from Italy to the United States, partly atoning for Al Capone and pizza [the man undoubtedly meant bad pizza].”
Zucchini come to Italy
Zucchini, botanically named Cucurbita pepo, were unknown in Europe before Columbus discovered their prototype in Mesomerica and sailed their seeds to Spain. They made their way to Italy, which bred the tender-skinned specimen of today, from its early thick-skinned ancestor that preferred tropical climates. In the 17th century when the Italians, tickled with their discovery, sent the improved fruit to Olivier de Serres, preeminent soil scientist and author of the French bible on agriculture of the day, he spat it out, calling it “Naples’s and Spain’s revenge.”
He wrote, “It does very well in the south, which is more receptive to rustic foods. … In the Old World as a whole the squash has been most generally adopted in Africa, which has no prejudice against rusticity either.”
The French are not inordinately fond of them even today, except in the form of their celebrated ratatouille. I may have a prejudice myself on the matter of French versus Italian food styles, no doubt inflamed by my Parisian brother-in-law’s refusal to eat any Italian cooking put before him, either mine or my mother’s (I speak in the past tense — he hasn’t been a guest at my table for 30 years). Whenever he smelled the aromas of simmering ragù or zucchine ripiene wafting through our house, he ducked out to the supermarket to buy mussels and cream and whipped up a quick moules marinières to survive the meal.
As rusticity is viewed differently these days than it once was, evidenced by America’s love affair with Italian country cooking, I’ll stick my neck out and say that the Italian way with vegetables is most likely to deliver their clear taste intact. Their particular love of zucchini is revealed by the sheer variety of recipes they have for it.
The best variety
Technically, zucchini are not a vegetable at all, but an immature fruit, the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower. The earliest record of their reintroduction to America dates to the early 1920s, with the arrival of immigrants from the Italian south. They called the fruit Cocozella di Napoli. It was renamed Romanesco zucchini by a California seed company in 1921. Although many other varieties have been developed, this very same slightly ribbed, striated type is the only one that I bother to grow or buy because of its rich-tasting and compact flesh, which is why the seed curator Will Bonsall considers it “the only summer squash worth bothering with, unless you’re just thirsty.”
Admittedly, it’s both a curse and a blessing that zucchini grow at such a meteoric rate and must be wrenched from the mother stalk when they have barely entered the world, but if gently nurtured in the kitchen, the squash will emerge with its natural charms intact.
Dealing with the bounty
In keeping with the spirit of zucchini’s abundance at this time of year, I list some tips, and quick recipes with which you can’t go wrong, even without precise measurements. Additionally, I offer one of my favorite fritter (frittelle) recipes in full, not only because I dream of zucchini season when I can make these crunchy, ethereal wonders, but because you get to use up a lot of zucchini for the recipe: after salting and draining them for the batter mixture, you are left with half their original weight and concentrated zucchini flavor.
Zucchini Fritters (Frittelle di zucchine)
From “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books, 2010)
Because at least half their weight is water, zucchini fritters can be sodden and oily if not prepared properly. These frittelle are very light and delicate as a result of using young specimens, and salting and draining the shredded raw zucchini before forming the batter. I can hardly get the tasty morsels from stove to table before kitchen “helpers” snatch them as quickly as they are fried. This one’s a crowd pleaser.
2 pounds small zucchini, each weighing between 6 and 8 ounces
2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
2 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons authentic, freshly grated aged Asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Grana Padano cheese
1 tablespoon all-purpose unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon fine bread crumbs
Freshly milled black pepper to taste
Safflower or grape seed oil for frying
1. Wash the zucchini well and slice off the stem and navel. Grate them on the large holes of a box grater or with a shredding attachment in a food processor. Put the zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, and toss. Place a plate on top. Over the plate, place a heavy weight such as a tea kettle filled with water or a very large can. Put the colander in the sink positioned over the drain. Allow the zucchini to release their water for at least an hour or up to two hours. Transfer the shredded zucchini to a clean kitchen towel to blot the remaining moisture, then place it in a mixing bowl, first using your hands to wring as much liquid out of the zucchini as possible.
2. Combine the shredded zucchini, eggs, cheese, flour, bread crumbs and pepper. Proceeding as directed, the mixture will be soft but not watery. Chill the mixture for an hour or up to two hours.
3. Pour enough oil in a frying pan to come 1½ inches up the sides. Turn on the heat and when the oil is sizzling hot, slip the zucchini mixture in one rounded teaspoon at a time. Take care not to crowd the pan; the fritters need plenty of room to cook. When they are golden-brown and crisp on one side, turn them over and cook until crisp and browned all over, about 5 minutes in total. Use a spider skimmer or tongs to transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with sea salt as soon as they are taken out of the oil and still plenty hot to ensure that it sticks. Repeat this procedure with the remaining batter. Serve the fritters at once.
Top photo: Romanesco zucchini at 3½ inches and ready for picking, Italian style. Credit: Susan Freiman