Is zucchini anyone’s favorite vegetable? Too often, it’s shredded and disguised in quick bread, sauteed to a limp, soggy mess, steamed with carrots and broccoli as part of the ubiquitous “vegetable medley” that accompanies every protein at second-rate restaurants, or doused with balsamic vinaigrette – that turn of the century abomination – and thrown on the grill.
OK, so it’s not the most exciting vegetable. Zucchini isn’t tomato or sweet corn. People don’t queue outside farm stands hankering after the first ripe zucchini of the season and blog about it afterward. And it isn’t onion or carrot – versatile, indispensable, indestructible. If you overcook it, zucchini degrades into a floppy, tasteless mess. Still, zucchini has merit. It possesses a mild sweetness, with a slightly floral, melony quality when raw. Lemon and fresh green herbs like mint, basil, and oregano bring out its best qualities. A mild, delicate, green vegetable, it pairs perfectly with shellfish. And its blossoms are reason enough to grow a zucchini plant or two in the summer.
Zucchini and yellow summer squash are not identical, but for most purposes, you can use yellow squash in place of zucchini. It tends to be less sweet, with a slightly bitter edge. Don’t overcook these summer squashes – they can go from tender to mushy in a couple of minutes.
Fiori di Zucca
Grow your own, cut them off the plants, and use immediately. Sometimes you can find blossoms with embryonic fruit (baby zucchini) attached … those are a special treat, and a great way to use up the squash before you wind up with dozens of giant ones.
Note – if you’re pressed for time, you can omit the egg white, but the filling will be heavier. In that case, just beat an egg or two with a little water and use it to coat the blossoms before dredging and frying. You don’t have to separate the eggs.
16 zucchini blossoms, preferably with small zucchini attached
1 c ricotta*
zest of one lemon
small handful flat leaf parsley, minced
6-8 mint leaves, chiffonade
3 eggs, separated (you will only use one yolk so use the other two for mayonnaise or something)
Combine the ricotta, one egg yolk, lemon zest, herbs, and a pinch of salt.
Beat three egg whites to soft peaks. Fold half the egg white into the ricotta mixture and reserve the other half. Spoon in enough ricotta-white mixture to fill each blossom. Seal and twist at top. If you can’t get the filling in without ripping the blossoms, tear a seam down one side (between two petals) and fill. Then twist it to make sure the stuffing stays inside.
Turn the remaining egg whites into a dredging pan and fill a second dredging pan with about 1 c flour. Heat a deep sauté pan and add olive oil 1/4″ deep. Dip each blossom completely in the foamed egg whites, shake off excess, dredge quickly in flour, shake off excess, and fry until golden. Turn over and fry on other side. Drain on towels and season with a little sea salt.
*If you’d like to make your own ricotta, stop back later this week for a lesson in making this most basic cheese.
Chilled Zucchini Soup
Cold soup in the summer is more refreshing than just about anything else you can eat. Don’t omit the lemon zest and yoghurt garniture – it adds brightness to the soup.
1 very large or 2 medium zucchini, ends removed, sliced
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic confit
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
3 stems flat leaf parsley
6-12 leaves basil, 6-8 leaves mint (depending on size, strength)
2 c ice or 1 c cold water
1 lemon, zested and juiced
whole milk yoghurt or sour cream
Sweat the onion, and garlic confit in olive oil with the bouquet garni over very low heat until both are very tender. Add the zucchini, cover the pan, and sweat over the lowest heat until tender. The zucchini will give up a bit of liquid. Do not allow any of the components to take on color at any time, and stop cooking while the zucchini still is green. Remove the bouquet garni. Allow to cool until tepid. Pour zucchini mixture (liquid and all) in a Vitaprep or blender and add basil and mint.
Add about 2 c ice or 1 c cold water, and purée in Vitaprep. Add cold water to desired consistency if necessary. Press through tamis if necessary to achieve a smooth texture. Season with salt, pepper to taste (you will add acid just before serving to preserve the soup’s green color). Chill.
Before serving, add lemon juice and taste again for salt. Serve with lemon zest, basil chiffonade, and a quenelle of yoghurt or sour cream.
Try this one when you’ve just returned from the farmstand on the way home from the beach in summer. I do like to sauté the corn for just a minute, but you can skip that step and enjoy a completely raw salad, if you’re using very fresh corn.
1 medium zucchini
2 ears corn, shucked and scraped
1/4 lb cherry tomatoes (red and yellow if you can)
champagne vinegar (or white wine, or cider, or rice vinegar)
espelette or cayenne pepper
Slice zucchini into very thin rounds (1/16″) using a mandoline or benriner. Arrange in an overlapping layer. Saute the corn in olive oil for just a minute, until barely cooked through, unless you’re serving it raw. Season with salt/pepper, and a pinch of espelette. Arrange the corn beside the zucchini.
Quarter the cherry tomatoes and toss in a little vinegar with a pinch of salt. Arrange the tomatoes beside the corn. Whisk the juice/vinegar that remains in the tomato bowl with some olive oil; drizzle this over all.
Zucchini “pasta” with clams
There’s a great Portuguese soup called sopa de amêijoas – literally “clam soup” – in which clams, cooked in their own liquid with white wine and vegetables – are finished with olive oil and sopped up with crusty bread. Sometimes shredded zucchini is incorporated into the soup, thickening it slightly and soaking up the olive oil. This brothy dish of clams with raw zucchini, sliced to resemble linguine, reminds me of that dish.
Salting the zucchini and blotting dry helps to crisp the vegetable by removing some of its water content, and seasons it as well. Don’t go salt crazy – you don’t need much salt to remove moisture, and the clams are pretty salty.
2 medium zucchini, sliced into long, thin strands with mandoline or shaved with a y-shaped vegetable peeler
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
lemon zest, removed in 1 long strip
2 sprigs parsley
1 very small bay leaf
1 1/2 c dry white wine
4 lbs clams (cherrystone are best; manila are fine also), cleaned and desanded
1/4 tsp or more crushed red chile flakes
large handful flat leaf parsley, torn
juice and zest of 1 lemon
tiny basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil
Very lightly salt the zucchini strands and toss well in a colander. Set over paper towels and leave to drain for about an hour.
Place clams in a large steamer. Set large pot over medium heat. Add olive oil; sweat garlic. Add bay leaves, lemon zest, and parsley; add wine. Place steamer basket over top; cover and steam until clams open. Strain liquid through chinois and return to simmer. Taste and correct with lemon.
Blot water from zucchini. Curl around large fork tines and place zucchini nests in each serving bowl. Add clams in shells (half in shells and half out makes for a great presentaton). Ladle broth over top. Sprinkle with chile flakes, pepper, and lemon zest, and garnish with parsley and basil leaves. Drizzle a little olive oil over top.
Serve with toasted ciabatta, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.