a test kitchen dossier
The trouble is, you cannot grow just one zucchini. Minutes after you plant a single seed, hundreds of zucchini will barge out of the ground and sprawl around the garden, menacing the other vegetables. At night, you will be able to hear the ground quake as more and more zucchinis erupt.
- Dave Barry
Foodstuff: Summer Squash
Etymology: From the Narragansett (a Native American Language) askutasquash which means “eaten raw” or “uncooked.”
Area of Origin: North America
Squash aren’t ostentatious vegetables. They’re incredibly good for you, because they’re low in calories and high in vitamins. They are not rare or expensive. In fact, if you know anyone with a garden then you probably have more zucchini than you know what to do with at least once a year. Raw, sauteed, steamed, baked, fried, stuffed, braised or roasted, there’s really nothing you can’t do to squash. Unfortunately, one consequence of this versatility is that all sorts of culinary crimes are perpetrated against this tender, delicate, wallflower of a vegetable. Remember, just because it’s inexpensive and widely available doesn’t mean you should take it for granted. Give your squash a little attention, and they’ll have you swooning over the quality of their flavor and texture. While summer squash (which are picked before they fully mature) are available year round, high season is June through early October, so tell your favorite gardener to bring it on. With our delicious recipes to inspire you, you won’t be able to get enough of this nutritious indulgence.
Squash may seem like a straightforward vegetable, but it has a complicated history. Winter squash (squash picked after it has matured, so its skin has time to thicken and harden) probably originated in Central America around five thousand years ago. Summer squash probably originated in North America, and culinary historians know that they were a staple of Native American Cuisine. In fact, squash is one of the “three sisters,” the three agricultural staples of most Native American tribes: beans, maize and squash. When Europeans began to colonize North and Central America, squash was one of the unexpected (and undervalued) treasures they discovered. Many culinary historians believe that zucchini actually arose in Italy from a spontaneous mutation and was later brought back to the Americas by Italian immigrants. There are no records of zucchini being grown or eaten in the United States until the 1920s; today, zucchini plays a prominent role in Mexican cuisine. Squash in general was not widely eaten in Europe until the late nineteenth century. The food writer Elizabeth David is primarily responsible for introducing zucchini to the British.
Tips and Tricks
The seeds of zucchini and squash are mostly water, and provide very little flavor. When sauteing squash, slice it in half, scoop out the seeds with a melon baller and discard them. Then slice and saute. The resulting dish will be far more intense in flavor and pleasing in texture.
When selecting standard zucchini and yellow squash, smaller is better. The smaller the squash the more succulent it is likely to be. If they are small, you don’t need to scoop out the seeds. Also, button-sized disks of yellow and green squash make for a stunning presentation.
Don’t overcook! Squash should retain their vibrant colors and be a little toothsome. Of course, there are important exceptions to this rule, such as the traditional French dish ratatouille, in which squash should almost fall apart at the touch of a fork.
There are countless seed varieties of summer squash, many of which go by multiple names depending on your location and source. While grocery stores offer limited variety, farmers markets often proffer a bounty of unusual and delicious types of squash. Ask farmers for suggestions on how to cook specific varieties. The following types are more widely available, though some are usually only sold at the height of squash season in most locations.
If you want the pure, unadulterated flavor of zucchini, smaller is definitely better. Look for firm flesh and vibrant skin that is free of bruises.
These lovely little treats are a recent addition to the squash spectrum. Several varieties exist, though the most popular seem to be called “eight balls” — try serving squash soup in zucchini bowls! Round squash are excellent for stuffing, and this variety is perfectly portioned for individual servings.
These petite squash come in yellow, green and white varieties and are also called “pattypan” or “petit pan.” They look like disks with wavy edges. This variety is somewhat more decorative than useful, as it is difficult to preserve their attractive shape while cooking them.
Similar to zucchini in appearance, this variety is generally large, about 12-16 inches long and 2-3 inches in diameter. Its skin is a pale greenish-white with stripes of slightly darker green. This variety is especially delicious roasted with lots of olive oil until it begins to caramelize.
Squash grow on flowering vines, and when they are picked young, the flower is often still attached. These lovely blossoms are edible and delicious, though they are usually too fuzzy to eat raw. Especially popular in Italy and France, squash blossoms can be stuffed, steamed, baked or deep fried. Steaming or baking best preserves the beauty of the blossom.