One of the most prolific vegetable families, the squash (a New World contribution to Europe, incidentally),
is poorly represented in Spain, with a single glowing exception — let the magic wand descend here
on that Cinderella of the vegetable bins – the Zucchini, or calabacin as it is known locally.
If this vegetable is unknown to you by either name, just look for that cucumber-like
object with smooth, dark green skin and a squash-flower stub at one end.
A GUIDEPOST Reprint
30 June 1972
In the usual culinary fairy tale, the meat dishes invariably play Prince Charming, and what else but the dessert course for the role of the beautiful Princess? Vegetables are relegated to a role midway between that of the ugly step-sister and attendant lord. However, as meat prices all over the world and calorie counts in our overdeveloped cultures continue to race into the stratosphere, common sense dictates a closer look at the potential roles that the common garden variety of vegetables may be able to play in the daily menu. And now that our reluctant summer seems to have decided to stay, the local markets will lend ample assistance, providing a galaxy of aspiring products.
One of the most prolific vegetable families, the squash (a New World contribution to Europe, incidentally), is poorly represented in Spain, with a single glowing exception — let the magic wand descend here on that Cinderella of the vegetable bins – the Zucchini, or calabacin as it is known locally. If this vegetable is unknown to you by either name, just look for that cucumber-like object with smooth, dark green skin and a squash-flower stub at one end.
To my mind, zucchini are at their best when they are picked still young – about 6 inches in length and 1 ½ inches in diameter. At this stage of their growth, the seeds in the pulpy part of the squash are almost unnoticeable and the skin is paper-thin and tender – no need to seed or peel, as some recipes direct. At this stage too, the flavor needs almost no enhancement but rapid cooking in a minimum of water and rapid delivery to the table.
My own taste for zucchini may well have been formed by the preference of Italian friends in the San Francisco Bay area for this type, because that was my first acquaintance with any kind of squash other than the mashed Hubbard variety that invariably appeared alongside the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey. (I always had a secret conviction that they somehow grew jointly, they were so inevitably linked together for the table!) And one of the happiest traditions that many Italian families carried to the States was that of the fresh vegetable garden, tucked away in any available space, however unpromising. It could be relied on to regularly produce at its seasonal best the most tender and succulent vegetables that ever it has been my privilege to eat. . .
Common sense will guide your choice of zucchini. Try to select squash of reasonably uniform size, whatever size you favor, and select the ones that weigh heaviest in relation to their size. This is the mark of solid young flesh. They should of course be free bruises or punctures. Wash them well, trim the ends, but leave the peel on. Most of the vitamins are in or near the dark green part of vegetables that we often strip away and discard.
Zucchini should be cooked in very little or no water, since they have a very high water content, like most vegetables. (That is one of the reasons they are so endearingly low in calories.) As a rule, they are cut in crosswise slices of varying widths, but they are also split lengthwise and parboiled for some recipes. Work out your own cooking time, depending on the age and thickness of the zucchini as you finally prepare it, and your taste for the final consistency – soft or just tender. . .
When done, pour off whatever little liquid may remain in the pan, salt with a light hand, and pour on a little melted butter or olive oil. If you have garden-fresh zucchini, nothing else is needed. However, for the sake of the less than ideal specimens which we normally have at hand, you might consider the addition of a little fresh lemon juice, sour cream, tomato sauce, grated cheese, or fresh herbs or any combination of them. All of these are flavors which appear regularly in recipes for zucchini preparation, such as the following ones.
Wash 1 pound of young zucchini, trim ends, and cut in very thin slices. Cut 1 medium onion in similar paper-thin slices. Heat several tbsp. of good olive oil in a heavy pan with a tight fitting cover. Add one garlic clove, brown it, and discard it. Sauté onion only until wilted but not browned. Add zucchini and 1 or 2 tbsp. of water. Cover and cook over medium heat until tender, shaking pan occasionally to prevent food from sticking. Season with salt and pepper and a little sweet basil, orégano, or marjoram. This dish may be eaten hot as a vegetable or cold as a salad.
“Sautéed” in this title is not to be confused with “fried”. . . Sautéing and frying, although similar, are distinct techniques and have very different applications. Foods are fried in some kind of fat, usually browned on both sides, and end up crisp if all goes well. Sautéed foods often involve the addition of a little liquid to the minimum amount of fat used at the start, are rarely browned, and usually finish with a soft surface texture.
If you want your zucchini fried crisp and brown, try this rather unusual recipe for
Prepare 3 cups of grated or coarsely chopped zucchini. Mix well with 1 lightly beaten egg, salt, and pepper. (You may add at your own discretion any of the following – 2 tbsp. grated onion, 1 tbsp. chopped parsley, 1 tbsp. chopped green pepper, dash of nutmeg). Mix 1/2 cup of any flour with 1 tsp. of baking powder and sift this mixture over the zucchini. Mix lightly and drop by spoonfuls on a lightly oiled gridale or heavy skillet. Cook until browned on both sides, turning only once. Serve immediately with hot butter and grated parmesan cheese.
An advantage of these pancakes is that they can replace the usual potato or other starch with the meal, but, due to this method of preparation, they do not rule out another vegetable.
The Italians also fry zucchini with other vegetables and this recipe should be an easy one for your Spanish cook. Since it involves liberal quantities of Real Olive Oil, it was a Special Dish back home but here it is relegated to the Routine category! The final texture is reminiscent of Italian antipasto vegetables.
NORTH BEACH ZUCCHINI E PEPERONI FRITTI
Wash about 1/2 kilo of zucchini but do not peel. Cut into slices or lengthwise strips of about 3 inches. Heat 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil and fry the strips of zucchini until they are delicately browned. Remove. Seed but do not cut up 6 small green peppers (the flat, misshapen kind, not those round Bell peppers) and fry whole in the same pan until browned on all sides. Without removing from the pan, cut into strips. Set aside. Drain off any more than 3-4 tbsp. oil left in pan. Add 1 cup tomato pulp (preferably peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes, but canned will do). Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Return zucchini and green pepper and heat together for 5 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
Another variation on the zucchini theme is to puree the cooked squash. If you cannot overcome the baby food connotations the word “puree” has acquired, call it
Prepare zucchini as for sautéed zucchini, but replace olive oil with butter. Use sliced green onions (including some of the green tops) instead of dry onions. When cooked very tender, mash with a fork and add more butter and 1-2 tbsp. heavy cream, plus a sprinkle of nutmeg. Pile into a casserole dish and sprinkle the top with a mixture of equal amounts of dry crumbs and grated parmesan cheese. Dot this with dabs of butter (about 1/4 cup in all) and bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes before serving.
Zucchini are handsome enough in themselves to be used for decorative purposes, and they make wonderful shells for individual service. Try some of these recipes for halved zucchini:
BROILED STUFFED ZUCCHINI
Preheat oven to 450 F (HOT). Simmer 6 whole zucchini in a little salted water until tender but not overdone. Drain, cool, and cut in halves lengthwise. Scoop out centers, being careful not to puncture the skin. Drain shells and pulp on paper towels. Prepare 1 ½ cups peeled, seeded chopped fresh tomatoes. Toss 1 cup of fresh bread croutons in butter or oil until golden brown. Mix lightly with tomatoes and zucchini pulp. Pile into shells, mounding high. Sprinkle tops with salt, pepper, and grated Cheddar cheese. Bake until heated through and pass under broiler to melt cheese before serving.
BROILED ZUCCHINI WITH ANCHOVIES
Wash, trim ends, and cut 6 small tender zucchini lengthwise. Make a deep slit in each half without piercing outer skin. Insert 1/2 of an anchovy fillet in each slit. Baste zucchini with a little oil from the anchovy can and roll lightly in a mixture of 1/4 cup flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Coat well and let stand a few minutes to dry. Place in an oven proof dish and drizzle with a little more oil or butter. Sprinkle tops with grated cheese. Heat in oven for 15-20 minutes and then broil until browned.
If you want to make zucchini served as the main course for a light lunch or supper, they can be stuffed with a more filling meat mixture. Here are a pair of recipes to start you off:
Preheat oven to 350°F (MODERATE). Combine 1 cup ground or finely chopped ham (I use 1/2 jamón serrano and 1/2 jamón de york here) with 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, 1/2 tsp. dry mustard, salt, pepper, 2 tbsp. finely minced onion and 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese. Wash and trim 6 uniform zucchini and cut in halves lengthwise. Hollow centers slightly and discard pulp. Fill with meat and crumb mixture. Place in a baking dish and add 1/3 cup olive oil and 1 mashed garlic. Cover and bake 45 minutes to 1 hour or until tender. Remove zucchini to serving dish and keep warm. Mix 1 ½ tsp. cornstarch into 1/2 cup tomato sauce and stir into pan liquids. Cook over low heat until slightly thickened. Skim off any excess oil that forms on the top. Spoon sauce over zucchini to serve.
MIDDLE EAST STUFFED ZUCCHINI
Wash 1 scant kilo of zucchini. Cut in halves and scoop out centers. Chop pulp coarsely. Mix 1 cup ground cooked lamb, 1/2 cup raw rice, 1 small onion chopped, 1 tbsp. parsley chopped with 3/4 cup tomtto sauce. Fill zucchini shells and place in a saucepan with 1-inch of water. Cover tightly and simmer over low heat about 1 hour or until rice is tender. Add more water as necessary. (You may add 1/2 cup chopped raisins to the meat-rice mixture for a delicious variation.)
Zucchini can also be prepared in a variety of casserole dishes, combined with other vegetables. An unusual Italian dish served around Florence is a sort of vegetable custard which has to be eaten to be appreciated:
ZUCCHINI CUSTARD CASSEROLE
Cut 6 small washed zucchini in 1/4-inch slices. Put 2 tbsp. sweet butter in a 1 ½ qt. casserole and add zucchini. Cover and bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a custard as follows: combine 1 cup light cream or evaporated milk, 3 lightly beaten eggs, 1 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. mignonette pepper and 1 small clove garlic. Pour this over zucchini and set casserole in a pan with 1-inch boiling water in it. Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes or until custard tests done.
Combine 1 cup each, water and milk and bring to boiling point. Add 3 cups thinly sliced zucchini, 2 cups thinly sliced carrots, 1/2 cup sliced onion, 1/4 cup sliced celery, and 1/4 cup thinly sliced green pepper. Cook about 20 minutes or until vegetables are just tender. Do not drain. Add 1 tsp. salt, 2 tbsp. butter, 1/4 lb. grated parmesan cheese, and 8 tbsp. dry cracker crumbs. Cover pan and heat until cheese is melted and mixture blends.
You will also find some unusual and interesting recipes for zucchini in that Bible of the kitchen, The Joy of Cooking, many of which I have used for years with both pleasure and success.
Images via Wikimedia Commons
Featured image (zucchini plant and flower)/net_efekt, CC BY2.0
Young zucchini/Jamain, CC BY-SA3.0
Zucchini sauté/Tony Websgyter, CC BY2.0
Stuffed zucchini /The Boreka Diary, CC BY-SA2.0
Zucchini casserole/Quant8, CC BY-SA4.0
Texts, prints, photos and other illustrative materials depicted in GUIDEPOST have been either contributed by the authors of each published work or, to the Magazine’s good-faith knowledge, are in the public domain or otherwise benefit from the allowances of Articles 9(2), 10, 10(bis), and applicable others of the Berne Convention for the Protection of literary and artistic works.