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When This Much Zucchini Abounds, the Possibilities Are Endless

August 08, 2004|Carolynn Carreno | Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about Bananas Foster.

Most people don't give zucchini a lot of thought--or, for that matter, respect. With a year-round commercial growing season and a mild flavor, the vegetable often is taken for granted. But really, it should be recognized for its many favorable qualities, the best of which is that you can use half your crop for dinner and the other half for a cake. Also, zucchini plants are so prolific in the summertime that a home gardener could feed the neighborhood with his crop. I know this because in the sixth grade, after planting my first home garden, I did.

Zucchini belongs to the family of summer squash that includes straight-neck, crook-neck and scallop-shaped squash. Though the most common varieties of zucchini are long, green and tube-shaped, it can be dark-green to very pale, with some variegated and others round like a baseball. The vegetable is known as a fast and foolhardy grower, making it a gratifying crop for beginning gardeners. I'm sure I've never felt so proud as when I hoisted those squash, half as long as a baseball bat and twice as big around, up the steps from our backyard canyon and into the kitchen, where they would be turned into my family's dinner. Never mind what they tasted like--or didn't. When left to grow to extremes, zucchini's mild, delicate flavor pretty much disappears and its characteristic thin skin becomes thick and tough.

Nevertheless, my mom, ever-supportive of my fancies and follies, did her best to use my bumper crop, turning the zucchini into little "boats" filled with ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese, or baking them in what she called zucchini pie, with a crescent roll crust. But with each zucchini weighing about the same as a small child, we had more than one family could eat. So I took the rest to the corner, where I set up a stand to sell them to unsuspecting passersby who marveled at their size, figuring (I suppose) that bigger meant better.

I think zucchini is just too available--which means it's not as coveted as the sugar snap pea or shell bean--and people can't seem to find enough uses for it. In the 1970s, zucchini often was cut into sticks, then battered, fried and dipped, if memory serves me, in ranch dressing--a treatment sure to cure any flavor-challenged food. In the '90s, the bounteous vegetable experienced a renaissance when American cooks discovered that it could be sliced, oiled and grilled, Italian-style, and it began appearing on antipasto platters and in sandwiches between slices of crusty bread.

I'm big on zucchini again, and have found many delicious ways to prepare it, including making an updated version of my mom's pie. I also like to cut it into big chunks that I saute quickly so they're deep brown on the outside and tender, almost buttery, on the inside. Tossed with chopped garlic and herbs (parsley, basil or mint), it can be a side dish, or tossed with short pasta and cherry tomatoes, it makes for a nice summery supper. But my new favorite way to eat zucchini is crudo, which is a fancy Italian way of saying "raw." The zucchini are "shaved" with a vegetable peeler and tossed in a salad with olive oil, parsley, pecorino cheese and toasted almonds.

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Zucchini Pie

Serves 12

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 pounds small-to-medium zucchini, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled1 sheet frozen puff pastry

Flour for dusting

4 large eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese (3 ounces)

1 bunch fresh Italian parsley (about 1/2 cup), finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and position a rack so that it is on the lowest level. Warm the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat until they are tender and translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly so it doesn't brown. Add the zucchini and oregano and cook until the zucchini is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Roll out the puff pastry on a well-floured surface to fit an 11-by-15-inch jelly roll pan. Lay the puff pastry in the pan, prick the bottom with a fork and place it in the oven to bake until it starts to lose the "wet" look but has not begun to puff up, about 4 to 5 minutes. (This head start should prevent a doughy bottom crust.)

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the cream, salt and pepper. Add the grated cheese, zucchini and parsley and stir to combine. Pour onto the puff pastry and bake until just set, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.

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