Mid-summer in the Bluegrass is a wonderful time of year, especially if you have a vegetable garden. With the sun still high in the sky and a good set of roots down under, the summer vegetable garden is just now hitting its stride. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers . . . all fresh from the garden . . . its bountiful exuberance is tough to beat. But then there’s the even bountifuller exuberance of one of the wonders of the vegetable kingdom . . . the zucchini.
The zucchini (known botanically as Cucurbita pepo – that’s right – same species as the pumpkin, squash, and gourds – they’re all just different varieties!) is one of those veggie garden plants that seems just too good to be true. It grows like a weed. In fact, extra-vigorous specimens have been known to eat small children and slow-moving Volkswagens.) While it performs best in a nice, fluffy garden soil, it will perform reasonably well in just about any soil from sandy to clayish junk. And while it may throw you a few frustrating curve balls early in the season (zucchini plants have a maddingly infuriating tendency to produce all male flowers, and thus no little zucchini fruits, during the first part of the season) once they start to produce fruit . . . look out.
When I lived in Maine, the locals warned me to keep my car locked during August. Not that they were worried about someone stealing the AM radio out of my old Chevy Chevette. But according to local lore, if you leave your car unlocked in Maine during zucchini season, you’re likely to return to a car stuffed full of 3-foot-long, man-eating zucchini! Overabundance can be quite a horticultural cross to bear this time of year!
So as a service to those who find themselves zucchini overwhelmed this time of year, following is my short list of top solutions for the zucchini rich among us.
Yep, that’s all we called it. Growing up as kid in the Cappiello household, that’s all the name it needed. Mid-sized zucchini, freshly harvested and sliced into ¼-inch rounds, were sauteed in olive oil with a few onions, a little salt and black pepper . . . lots of black pepper . . . to just the perfect al dente stage. The smell, when done just right, is one of the few vivid memories I have of my grandmother’s house in New York City. Sure, you can tart up the dish with modern hog-jowl bacon or unicorn sauce but fresh and simple is all that’s needed. Nothing more.
This staple consists of coarse-grated zucchini mixed with a concoction of egg, a bit of flour, salt, pepper and some good pecorino Romano cheese and dropped as small dollops onto a hot pan with enough oil to make them just barely float. Fry on both sides and drain on a paper towel. These little bright green pancakes are best right out of the pan . . . but a cold one out of the fridge the next morning makes a nice breakfast treat. Don’t ask me for proportions or measurements. I do own a set of measuring cups but my wife usually uses them to measure out dog or cat food in the morning so they’re usually sitting in the yet-to-be-run dishwasher . . .
This is one of the easiest treats on the summer planet. Slice a zucchini in half along the long axis. Scoop out the insides to leave about a ¼-inch shell. Mix the innards with some breadcrumbs (use the Italian seasoned ones for a short cut) and a bit of that pecorino Romano cheese and spoon it back into the zucchini shell. Drizzle a little high-grade olive oil over the top and bake in a glass baking dish until the shell is barely softened and the top is a golden brown. You’ll look like a genius!
Now for those of you who don’t cook, fear not. I’ve not forgotten you. The zucchini is such a versatile instrument, it presents endless opportunities.
If you believe the loonies on Instagram/Facebook, by now you’ve probably tried to propagate a bunch of cuttings and attempted fertilizing all your house plants with a rotting, stinking and fruit fly infested mass of banana skins. If that actually worked, I’m guessing that old, half rotted zucchini in the back of the refrigerator drawer should work just fine. And I’d also have a giant, zucchini-sized bridge in New York that I’d be willing to sell to you . . .
And if none of the above work to rid you of your overabundance of Cucurbita pepo biomass, I hear the good folks down at Louisville Slugger might be interested. If you let your zucchini grow to sufficient size (to the point that they are no longer . . . actually edible!) they start to bear a striking resemblance to a pine log. Sure, might not be as strong as ash (or sugar maple) but think of the benefits to the strapping young player with a big appetite who ends up riding the pine through a long afternoon of extra innings. Pass the salt (and pepper) please . . .
Finally, I offer the ultimate use for the extra mountain of zucchini taking up room in your pantry. As we’re going into election campaign season, you’re perfectly positioned to show your appreciation to your local campaign visitor. The next time one of those nice folks comes a knocking during the diner hour, as a thank you for their selfless participation in our 200+ year experiment with democracy, hand them your largest remaining zucchini and ask them to bring it to their favorite candidate as a token of your appreciation. They’ll love you for it!
This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on August 1, 2023.