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Whether served raw with olive oil, grated with fresh herbs, or pan-fried in a pancake - zucchini is a must-have ingredient when it comes to spring cooking.
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I love watching Italian grandmothers picking over vegetables at the supermarket. I can just hear them thinking, "You call this a tomato? Pah!" If you're in a hurry, though, you really don't want to get stuck behind a nonna when she's going through the zucchini - each and every one gets picked up and examined, and most rejected.
I'm fortunate to have a local grocer that's owned and run by an Italian family. The produce is excellent, and much of it comes from their own farm. This means that when it comes to zucchini they'll be firm and just the right size. By "the right size", I mean not very large. We tend to grow zucchini too big here in Australia. Twelve to 15 centimetres is all a dark-green zucchini needs to be. Any larger and they start to lose their delicate flavour and get mushy when they're cooked. It's a classic supermarket failing, the idea that bigger is better.
I remember in my early teenage years of vegetarianism I experimented with Sarah Brown's Vegetarian Cookbook and made giant zucchini stuffed with brown rice and grated cheddar cheese. Not one of my finest kitchen moments. Even if it's tempting to buy an enormous zucchini and gouge out the inside so that you can stuff it, it'll often be an experience you'll regret; the skin will be tough and coarse, the flesh a wet, bitter pulp.
That said, it can be hard to keep up with those zucchini plants out in the vegetable patch: they're nothing if not prolific. Just when you've run out of ideas for cooking with your right-sized zucchini, you could use the marginally longer ones (around 20cm-25cm) to make bread-and-butter pickles to go with your ham and cheddar sandwiches later in the year.
Zucchini have a sweet, subtle flavour and interesting texture -
especially while they're still small and young. They lend
themselves well to a number of different preparations. Sliced very
thinly on a mandolin, they're lovely dressed raw as a salad or
sautéed quickly with good olive oil, garlic and some torn basil -
or zucchini's other favourite herb, fresh thyme. Either way they
make a nice antipasto, a lovely accompaniment to a grill, and are
good tossed through pasta, or scattered over pizza. They're also
excellent in caponata, to go a little sweeter, and they take well
to sousing as well as pickling.
Soft cheeses such as buffalo mozzarella, ricotta and goat's curd have a particular affinity with zucchini. A thin frittata with sautéed zucchini and dollops of ricotta, with just a touch of grated parmesan and basil, is a favourite quick lunch for me.
When I choose to grill zucchini, I find the best way to bring out the flavour is to dress and salt them while they're still hot. And to eat them soon after - they're not nearly so interesting after being cooked then put in the fridge until the next day.
I remember, many years ago in Mildura, Stefano de Pieri's excitement the day he managed to finally find a grower who would supply him with zucchini flowers. No one in the area had even heard of a use for these flowers at the time and they were considered quite the delicacy. We would stuff them with fresh goat's cheese and thyme, then lightly batter them and fry them in olive oil. Zucchini flowers can be filled with just about anything - a little bit of crab, say, or smoked eel mousse. A flavoured soft cheese is always good. I like to keep the filling simple and enjoy the subtle flavour and crunchy exterior. If deep-frying is one of those lines you won't cross in your kitchen at home, don't fret - zucchini flowers need not be deep-fried to be enjoyed. They make a colourful and lively addition to salads and summer minestrones, along with the chopped-up baby zucchini themselves, and they're also very good simply battered in egg and breadcrumbs and shallow-fried.
There are, of course, many different kinds of zucchini. "Italian Striped" from my grower of heritage vegetables out in Tooborac in central Victoria has been a favourite for me this season. It has a much sweeter flavour and firmer texture than the common dark-green variety. If you've got an interest in planting seeds, theitaliangardener.com.au is a great place to find excellent, full-flavoured varieties. You'll also find more interesting varieties at farmers' markets where the producers grow specifically for flavour and texture rather than shelf-life. Just make sure you get there before the nonnas.
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