Summer perfection is the crisp taste of tender zucchini, lightly steamed and dipped in olive oil, or even better the soft folds of the Cucurbita pepo blooms, stuffed with equally velvety flavours such as goat’s cheese, salmon or lemon.
Whether you are growing your own or selecting from a well-stocked greengrocer, these are the true fruits of summer abundance.
Zucchini is the Italian name, meaning gourd, and encompasses the whole group of squash, marrows, pumpkins and other similar growing cucurbits.
The French coined the term courgettes d’Italie, and the English borrowed that for their description. In America they are known as summer squash, after the season in which they are best grown.
Whatever the name, the fruit is at its best very young and immature. If left on the plant, it quickly becomes a marrow.
The flowers are interesting all by themselves. Very delicate, the large orange blooms open and expand in one day – hopefully enough time to attract a bee to spread the pollen from the male flower to the female.
The male flower forms beside leaves on the plant’s main stem and is often prized for canapés and starters in Italian cuisine, due to its long stem. Female flowers are found on the growing fruit, and can be eaten in a more raw state.
How to buy
Zucchini and its flowers should be sourced when very fresh. The fruit or the swollen cylindrical tubes are crispest on the day of picking and have a rapid respiration rate, becoming limp very easily.
Look for fresh crisp fruit, with no scarring, or bruising.
Because life is so short for the flowers, they are chilled and often sold with the petals closed. If the flower is too old, it will be impossible to open and stuff or even remove the stamen inside.
How to store
These are the ultimate fresh produce. Don’t even try to keep zucchini flowers for long – they should be cooked and eaten on the day of picking. If they must be stored, lightly mist with water and place in a ziplock plastic bag in the fridge. Zucchini will last a few more days, but need to be wrapped in plastic, and kept in the vegetable section of the fridge. They can be frozen: simply slice and place in a bag. Use within three months.
How to grow
Zucchini are grown from seed at the earliest signs of spring, when the soil begins to warm. Keep at least half a metre between plants, as they spread.
A good tip for space-saving is to plant them inside a cone cage, like ones used for training beans or tomatoes, so they grow up, not out. They will require a well-manured soil, plenty of water, in a sunny, sheltered spot.
Downy mildew and sap-sucking insects are the enemy, so keep an eye on the large prickly leaves and treat swiftly.
Small zucchinis are delectable raw. Slice into batons for the crudité platter, grated or sliced into salads and mixed with the best vinaigrette; included in a coleslaw; or thrown into a green smoothie.
Sometimes, it seems, all the zucchini are ready to be picked at once. At times of abundance, excess produce can easily be made into soups, stews, frittatas, or even bread, muffins and cakes.
There is no meal where the average zucchini can’t slip into. However, if the garden zucchini have grown too large, don’t leave them rotting for the birds and insects.
The larger of the fruit are perfect – peeled and thinly-sliced – used as a layer in a vegetable lasagne, or grated for soft breads, cakes, pasta, fritters, or even added to muffins and omelettes.
Really large ones can be stuffed with wild rice and mince-meat for a delicious quick dinner. Even the discarded tops of the zucchini can be thinly sliced and marinated and added to a Thai green curry or salad.
Our favourite zucchini recipes:
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