All hail the zuke!

The summer squash we call zucchini is beloved around the world. Why, then, do we treat it like the equivalent of the door-stop Christmas cake? Because we’ve all had too many giant zucchini with flesh that looks and tastes like cotton balls, that’s why.

When it comes to this squash, bigger is not better. They are best eaten while in flower and under eight inches in length, which, actually, gives us the compelling reason we need to bother growing them. Since the flowers are almost impossible to find or too expensive when you do (I saw them once at a market for $2 each) and harvesting the flowers inhibits growth, by growing your own you can have your flowers and eat your (little) zucchini too.

There’s more to zucchini than a loaf. Whether you call it a calabaza, a courgette, or a zucca, here are several good reasons to love zucchini.

Zucchini flowers (fior de zucca) stuffed with ricotta and mint

Worth the trouble, fried zucchini flowers are a fantastic first course or the start to a tapas-style dinner. Deep-frying on the stovetop isn’t hard—but it’s no place for multitasking. It must hold all of your attention. Long tongs and elbow-length silicone gloves keep skin safe from splatters. If you’ve made tempura, that experience will help—it’s essentially the same technique.

  • 1 sml pkg (approx. 7 ounces) ricotta (drain for a few minutes if the ricotta is soupy)
  • pinch ground nutmeg
  • ¼ c freshly grated Parmesan
  • zest of 1 lemon, plus lemon for serving
  • 1 sprig thyme, leaves only, chopped
  • 1 sml red chili, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 bnch fresh mint, finely chopped and split
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1¾ c flour
  • salt
  • 1½ c sparkling wine or water
  • 10-12 zucchini flowers, pistils or stamen removed, but with a bit of stem left on to act as a handle.
  • vegetable oil (I use ¾ canola to 1/3 extra virgin olive oil for the flavour)

Mix the ricotta in a bowl with nutmeg, cheese, lemon zest, thyme, chili, and half the chopped mint. Check for flavour balance, adding more herbs, lemon, or seasoning, if necessary.

Gently open the flowers and fill with ricotta mixture, using a spoon or piping bag. Hold by the stem handle and, cradling each flower in the palm of one hand, gently work the filling down into the flower so they look like little pouches, then pinch the ends of the flowers together. Place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet until all the flowers are filled.

Put flour and pinch salt into a mixing bowl. Pour in the wine and whisk until thick and smooth—the consistency should be like heavy cream or a crêpe batter. If it’s too thin, more flour; if too thick, more wine.

Pour up to 3-4 inches of oil into a deep pot and heat to 350ºF.

Dip flowers one by one into the batter, letting excess drip off. Working quickly, carefully place each flower into the hot oil, releasing them away from you. Batter one or two more flowers and continue to fry each until all are golden and crisp all over. Don’t crowd the pan. Check the oil temperature about every three flowers, to make sure it remains at 350ºF.

Drain on the paper towels.

To serve: Place flowers on serving platter, sprinkle with salt and a squeeze of lemon. Toss remaining mint over and serve.

These are best served immediately, but can be reheated in a 350ºF oven.

Zucchini and beet latkes

This simple latke recipe makes a delish side dish with turkey. Fritters and latkes are a good use of zucchini that may be beyond their first blush of youth.

  • 2 med or 1 lrg zucchini, cottony centre removed
  • 1 lrg beet (or equivalent), peeled
  • 1 med onion, chopped
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 T flour
  • ½ t baking powder
  • sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
  • ½-1 c canola oil for frying

Grate zucchini and beets and place in strainer or colander. Squeeze out as much moisture from the vegetables as you can. When dry, put in a large bowl and combine with all other ingredients, except for the oil. Check for seasoning.

Heat about ¼ cup oil in large frying pan until very hot. Drop one large tablespoon of beet/zucchini mixture into pan for each latke. Use back of spoon to flatten mixture so that each latke is about two-inches in diameter (or larger, if you prefer). Fry over medium-high heat about four to five minutes per side until crisp. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in oven. Continue, using more oil, if necessary, for each batch. Serve hot with sour cream or a light tomato sauce. Makes 16-26 latkes depending on size.

Baked zucchini bacon fritters

  • 3 med zucchini, chopped
  • ½ fresh jalapeño, stemmed and minced
  • 2 t finely chopped green onion
  • sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
  • 1 lrg egg, lightly beaten
  • ¼ c grated mozzarella or provolone cheese
  • ¾ c milk (or beer)
  • 1½ c fine bread crumbs (approximately)
  • 1/8 t smoked paprika (or cayenne)
  • 6 slices cooked bacon, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Stir together zucchini, jalapeño, onion, salt, and pepper. Check for seasoning (under salt as the cheese and bacon are salty). Add egg, cheese, milk, and bacon to zucchini mixture and toss to mix. In a separate bowl, whisk together crumbs, cayenne, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Stir in zucchini mixture until incorporated.

Shape into patties or logs and place on a parchment covered cookie sheet.

Cook for 10 minutes at 400ºF then lower heat to 350ºF. Continue cooking until fritters are browning and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 10 minutes. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon or a chunky fresh tomato sauce.

Zucchini salad

Using a mandolin, or V-slicer, makes quick work of zucchini, but a vegetable peeler or good knife skills do the trick just as well. Zucchini partners beautifully with lots of mint. You can also add cherry tomatoes, if you have some.

  • 1/3 c extra-virgin olive oil
  • juice squeezed from half small lemon (about 2 T)
  • sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
  • ¼ t dried crushed red pepper
  • 2-3 med zucchini (about 2 pounds)
  • 1 hndfl fresh basil, coarsely chopped (about ½ c)
  • ¼ c toasted pine nuts
  • small wedge pecorino or parmesan

Make a dressing by whisking oil, lemon, seasoning, and dried pepper in a large bowl. Set aside.

Slice zucchini into ribbons (about 1/16 inch thick). Add zucchini, nuts, and basil to the dressing and toss to coat. Using a vegetable peeler, shave strips from cheese wedge over salad.

Zucchini salsa fresca

This no-cook sauce is reminiscent of a Mexican salsa verde, excellent on pork, fish, or chicken. If you don’t like cilantro, use parsley.

  • 2 med zucchini, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 hndfl cilantro plus leaves for garnish
  • 1/3 c white or red onion, chopped
  • 5 T fresh lime juice
  • 1 jalapeño (or to taste), chopped and seeded
  • zest of one small lime
  • sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
  • 1¼ t ground coriander (optional)

Combine zucchini, cilantro, onion, chile, lime juice, and zest in food processor. Pulse until well combined. Add seasoning and coriander, if using. Puree until smooth. Garnish with reserved cilantro leaves. Use within a day for the best flavours.

Ratatouille: sautéed summer vegetables starring zucchini

Ratatouille must be the most accommodating vegetable dish of all. The original idea from the south of France was tomatoes, eggplant, and squashes sautéed with fresh herbs and olive oil. It’s the essential late summer dish—simple, delicious, and versatile.

You can rough cut the vegetables in a simple rustic style, or dice as in the first recipe.

You could julienne the vegetables as chef Ming Tsai does in this Asian version, below.

Or, you can go all Thomas Keller. Layer thin, almost transparent, rounds of the vegetables (this was the dish that made the food critic a human again in the movie Ratatouille).

You can cook the vegetables all together, in stages, or you can roast or grill them. Eat it hot or cold, as a pizza topping, or an omelette filling. You can put it in the oven with some cheese and call it a casserole. You can probably even freeze it—pull out in the middle of February to get a hit of summer.

Use whatever you’ve got that’s fresh and delicious and bountiful, or what looks good at the market. We used vegetables found in most Alberta gardens and didn’t miss the eggplant at all.

Mediterranean ratatouille

  • ¼ c canola oil, or a fruity extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1 sml yellow onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1-3 stalk fresh thyme, leaves only
  • 1 sweet pepper, diced
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • 1 yellow squash, diced
  • 4-6 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or small whole tomatoes
  • 1 sml bnch fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 sml bnch parsley, chopped
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Place a large sauté pan over low-medium heat and add oil. Once hot, add the onions and garlic to the pan. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are lightly caramelized, about five minutes. Add the peppers, zucchini, and squash and cook for about five minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil, parsley, and seasoning to taste. Cook for about another five minutes. Stir well to blend. Serve immediately or chill. Keeps for about one week in the fridge.

Asian ratatouille

Adapted from Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger Cookbook. Serve with chicken, fish, or by itself with rice. It may seem fiddly to cook the vegetables separately but the payoff is in the final flavours of the dish.

  • 2 zucchini, julienned lengthwise
  • 2 yellow squash, julienned lengthwise
  • 1 yellow pepper, julienned
  • 4 T canola oil
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped fine
  • 2 t chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 large yellow onion, julienned
  • 2 yellow tomatoes, cut into 1/8 dice
  • 4 sprigs thyme, leaves only, chopped fine
  • 1 bunch (approx ½ c) basil, leaves only
  • 1 bunch (appox ½ c) Thai basil, leaves only
  • 3 t tamari sauce
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Place the zucchini and squash in separate pans. Season with salt and let rest for one hour to allow the moisture to be released. Pat the vegetables dry. Prepare a sauté pan coated with 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat. Add ½ teaspoon garlic, ½ teaspoon ginger, zucchini, and squash. Sauté until the vegetables colour and are limp. Season with pepper. Set aside. In a sauté pan over medium high heat, cook the onion, remaining garlic, and ginger for eight to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and thyme and continue to cook for another eight minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Add the zucchini, squash, Thai basil, basil, and soy sauce to the tomato mixture. Adjust the seasonings, being careful not to over salt as the julienned vegetables received salt in the preliminary steps.

Grilled ratatouille

This treatment leaves the vegetables in rounds, which is attractive as a side dish, while the smoky flavours of the grill add dimension. Add some soft goat cheese and large croutons and place on greens for a summery main course salad.

  • 1 red onion, sliced in ¼ inch rounds
  • 1 yellow squash, sliced in ¼ inch rounds
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced in ¼ inch rounds
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced in ¼ inch rounds
  • 1 zucchini, sliced in ¼ inch rounds
  • 1 pkg (about 2 c) cherry tomatoes
  • 1/3 c extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 T finely chopped fresh oregano
  • ¼ c finely chopped Italian parsley

Place all vegetables in a large dish, add oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Place each vegetable on the grill in batches — from the onion (longest cooking time) to the tomatoes (shortest cooking time) — and cook until marked, about five minutes, turning halfway through. Remove tomatoes, reserve. Cover grill and cook all remaining vegetables for two minutes, or until almost cooked through. In the meantime, add the reserved fresh herbs to the oil. Transfer all the vegetables back to the bowl and toss in the remaining oil. Taste for seasoning. Serve with lots of fresh parsley and basil tossed over. Enjoy hot or cold.

– Mary Bailey