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There's Never Too Much

Zucchini in August is a wondrous thing: young, tender and infinitely variable. All it needs is a sensitive cook, ready to exploit and explore.

August 18, 2004|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

The other day I came home from the farmers market with so much zucchini the overflow from my refrigerator filled a big bowl on my counter. Every time I walked by I was torn between admiring the still life -- the usual suspects up against new Italian heirlooms with white stripes, and softball-round French squash, and almost black-hued hybrids -- and looking forward to getting my hand on a knife.

Usually in August the mantra is "too much zucchini." My attitude is: Bring 'em on.

Zucchini is not some commodity to be sublimated in soups and side dishes and breads any old time of year. It's one of the most wondrous ingredients available to the seasonally sensitive. And if you get it while it's young and tender, it can outperform far more glamorous and less prolific produce.

I'm convinced deprivation leads to inspiration, though. I buy zucchini only this time of year, averting my eyes from the obvious green alternative to broccoli in supermarkets in fall and winter. By the time the first skinny squash turn up in my farmers market, I'm ready to exploit and explore its unique, almost nutty flavor in new and old ways. Unlike so many cooks who are sick of zucchini even before it goes huge and woody on them, I see it as an irresistible option.

Most of the recipes crammed into the "Too Much Zucchini" canon have only one goal: burning through as much squash as possible, with no regard for nuances in flavor and texture. But zucchini is best approached like any short-term pleasure. Frying is one of the most reflexive ways to cook it, for instance, yet if you slice it thicker and don't just dust it with flour but coat it in a batter more suited to an onion ring you'll wind up with a basketful of something irresistible. The center of the slices will soften just enough, while the casing will emerge from the oil as crisp and fragile as pastry.

Grated zucchini can also be made into madeleines to great effect, with an almost quiche-like batter bulked up with flecks of green. The delicate combination of squash, cheese and basil is worlds away from the workhorse casseroles of the "Too Much" realm.

Green, and beyond

I always start my summer by braising half-moons of zucchini in a basic tomato-basil-garlic sauce, almost as a ritual. Then I might try a Provencal-style gratin: diced chunks simmered with garlic and herbs, then baked with cream and eggs and a layer of cheese. In both cases, the zucchini is not vanquished but transformed.

This year the experimenting is so much easier because zucchini is proliferating at farmers markets. The generic green kind you can buy all year, the kind that notoriously mutates overnight if left on the vine, is being supplanted by more tantalizing heirlooms and hybrids.

I was happily shopping for my first zucchini of the season when I picked up a ridged one with a pale green and white skin. It turned out to have surprisingly rounded flavor, cooked or raw, not to mention the most dramatic shape whether baked in a summer gratin or sliced as crudites. The farmer had labeled it costata romanesca, and it turns out to be an Italian heirloom. It's easy to see why it didn't make the commercial cut: those lovely ridges would not survive long-distance trucking. This is a local treasure.

On another Wednesday I found long, fat squash labeled raven zucchini, clearly a reflection of their green-to-the-verge-of-black skin. (They're also known as black beauty.) The skin was tougher than usual and the flesh more like eggplant, with fewer seeds. The next Saturday I went for a skinny yellow zucchini labeled magda cousa, a Lebanese variety with delicate flavor and pulp.

The most dramatic of the "new" zucchini is a perfectly round one called the eight ball, about the size of a softball with deep, dark green skin. You almost don't want to eat it, it's so much like a table decoration, but it's the best bet for stuffing. A more delicate cousin is the paler, sweeter ronde de Nice.

All these are competing with the usual lita, the pale green Middle Eastern zucchini that looks like the business end of a small baseball bat, and long, skinny, pale green cucuzza, or snake squash, the kind I recently saw labeled in a market in Florence as "the widow's friend."

Because my zucchini diet is restricted to summer, I also remain enamored of the regular kind, the straight green ones that are such a great addition to anything from an omelet to oatmeal cookies. And I would never throw their yellow cousins out of my shopping basket, either. A little color does not affect the flavor or texture, but it does liven up a recipe.

As is so often the case in the produce realm, California can take credit for at least the marketing genius. William Woys Weaver writes in "Heirloom Vegetable Gardening" (Henry Holt) that most green summer squash were always known by the Italian name cocozelle until West Coast growers -- primarily Italian -- adopted zucchini in the 1920s and 1930s. Zucca is Italian for squash, and "ini" is diminutive.

Subtle flavors

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