The pride of many a backyard vegie garden, the zucchini was better known in the past as a marrow, grown to huge sizes and entered in the local show.
Today’s zucchini are actually young, immature marrows, the edible flowers of which are an unmissable delight.
Zucchini is a member of the Cucurbita pepo family of edible gourds, which includes patty pan squash, choko and pumpkins. The by JG Vaughan and CA Geissler (Oxford University Press) explains that the species’ squash ancestors were a diet staple in pre-Columbian South America. The 16th-century European colonisation saw them brought to Spain, then to Italy and the rest of Europe.
Zucchini vines grow best in temperate climates worldwide and consequently feature in many national cuisines:
*French chefs braise them in ratatouille, in Italy the flowers are stuffed, and in Mexico the flower is preferred, often appearing in soups or fillings for quesadillas.
*The name comes from zucca – Italian for squash. The French/UK term, courgette, is a diminutive of ‘courge’ (squash in French). In Australia, the first zucchini were cultivated by Italian immigrants in the 50s.
*Picking them when very young – before the flower has opened and the fruit is barely finger-length – allows for profuse flower growth over several months, each shoot producing a great number of little zucchini.
*There are two types of zucchini flower: the small, readily available female is part of the immature vegetable, and the larger, more attractive male grows on a thin stalk. Both are used in cooking.
Although not usually sold by variety, the types to be found in green grocers vary in colour. Silver bead is very dark green, straight and long, and there are similar-shaped zucchini in paler green-yellow or golden colours. The Lebanese or grey zucchini is pale with white flecks, shorter, bottle-shaped and often used for stuffing.
In Australia, zucchini are mainly grown in the south-eastern states in all seasons bar winter; flowers appear at their best during summer.
Choose zucchini that are small but heavy for their size, firm, with glossy and tender skins. Keep stored in a plastic bag in the crisper for up to three days. They are available for most of the year.
Zucchini flowers peak in late spring to early summer and are best on the day of picking; otherwise, select ones bright in colour with no wilting or deterioration.
Trimmed of the stalk, zucchini can be cooked whole, sliced or grated, stuffed or used as stuffing, roasted, sautéed, stirfried, deep-fried, braised and chargrilled. They don’t lend well to boiling as they become waterlogged. When young, thinly slice and eat raw in salads, or marinate. Cut into batons for an accompaniment to dips.
Zucchini flowers may be sautéed, roasted, steamed, or stuffed. When stuffing, remove pistil and stamen, fill with desired ingredients, leaving enough room to twist the top of flower to seal. Simply steam, or batter or crumb and then shallow-fry or roast.
*For sautéed zucchini, heat olive oil in a frying pan, add thinly sliced garlic and cook until soft, then add thinly sliced zucchini and cook until tender. Add coarsely torn mint leaves, drizzle with red wine vinegar and season to taste.
*For a zucchini and feta frittata, sauté a finely chopped leek until softened, add a coarsely grated zucchini and cook until tender. Add coarsely chopped feta and finely chopped dill and season to taste. Whisk together eggs and a little cream and pour over vegetable mixture. Cook over medium heat until almost set, then place under a hot grill and cook until just set.
*For zucchini salad, thinly slice a small zucchini lengthways on a mandoline and place in a bowl with roasted walnuts, coarsely torn basil and parsley leaves, then drizzle with lemon-infused olive oil and sangiovese verjuice and season to taste.
*For stuffed zucchini flowers, combine equal quantities of goat’s curd and ricotta, finely chopped golden shallots, roasted pine nuts and dried oregano. Remove pistil from zucchini flowers and fill with mixture, leaving enough room to twist tops of flowers closed. Dust lightly with flour. Heat olive oil in frying pan and cook zucchini flowers until golden.
*For roasted ratatouille, in a roasting pan combine thickly sliced zucchini, eggplant and red capsicum with red onion, cloves of garlic and roma tomatoes cut into wedges. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, season to taste with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and brown sugar. Cover with foil and bake at 160C until vegetables are tender. Serve hot or at room temperature with barbecued roast lamb.
*For zucchini soup, sauté onion and garlic until softened, then add coarsely chopped zucchini and enough chicken stock to cover, bring to the simmer and cook until zucchini is tender, cool. Add fresh basil leaves and process in a blender until smooth, then season to taste. Serve cold or warm with sheep’s milk yoghurt.
Anchovies, basil, capers, chilli, coriander seeds, dill, eggplants, feta, garlic, lemon, mint, onions, oregano, parmesan, parsley, pine nuts, rice, seafood, tomatoes, walnuts, vinegar, yoghurt.
Delicate zucchini flowers are a warm-weather favourite, and the gourd itself is a versatile year-round ingredient.