As regular readers will know, each month Kyle of Fulcrum Farm and I take a look at a vegetable in season. This usually involves a beer (or so) as it is well-known that beer is an appropriate accompaniment for both food and conversation. This month we look at zucchini and Kyle has two varieties: the blackjack (a commercial variety) and the Romanesco (which is an heirloom variety). Each variety tastes good if you prepare it properly: the Romanesco is slightly creamier. What I like about zucchini is that one can eat the fruit and the flower.
Zucchini flowers: Romanesco on the left and black jack on the right. Only the females produce fruit. Stuffed zucchini flowers are a food of the gods.
The zucchini was one of those vegetables which could not be found in the 1950s and 1960s England where I was brought up. I cannot recall when they first appeared, probably in the late 1970s when my Mother would have referred to them as “exotic vegetables”. And she would have called them courgettes. I expect that she would have boiled them as Mrs Beeton might have advised except that Mrs Beeton didn’t know about courgettes. There’s no difference between zucchinis and courgettes: the word “zucchini” is Italian in origin (from the word yucca which means gourd) and the word “courgette” is from the Latin curcurbita via the French courge (both words mean gourd). What Mrs Beeton did know about was marrows and these were part of the staple English diet when I was growing up. We had them stuffed with beef mince and onions and they were truly dreadful.
My starting point for information on food and cooking is Harold McGee’s wonderful “On food and cooking” (1984). I found zucchini in the index but was dumbstruck to find reference to but a single page. I found page 201 and scoured it for the word zucchini. I found it in a small section headed “Botanical Fruits That Are Culinary Vegetables”. There are two paragraphs in this section. The first discusses cucumbers: a fine fellow called Louis Lemery (1677 - 1743) said that cucumbers are appropriate only for “young Persons of a hot and bilious Constitution.” In the second paragraph McGee notes only that zucchini and crookneck are summer varieties of squash. I found crookneck described somewhat unattractively as “a squash of a club-shaped variety with a curved neck and warty skin.”
I thought I would go further back in time and consulted Pliny’s Natural History (written about 60 AD). My experience with Pliny is that he generally reckons that any given vegetable has aphrodisiacal qualities. I was disappointed. Pliny speaks only of gourds and seems to mean cucumbers: he notes that Chrysippus the physician (279 - 206 BC) “disapproved of gourds as food, but there is a general agreement that they are very beneficial to the stomach, and also for ulceration of the intestines and bladder.”
The vegetable marrow as pictured in Mrs Beeton
The zucchini may have come to Europe with Columbus. I read in the UK’s Daily Mail (possibly not a reliable source) that “the courgette … [is] … a member of the cucumber and melon family … [and] … comes from Central and South America, where it has been eaten for thousands of years.” It was brought to the Mediterranean by Christopher Columbus around 500 years ago but wasn’t cultivated in Europe until the late 19th century. The modern variety was developed in Italy, where it is called zucchino, meaning a small squash. This led to it being called a zucchini in the US and, for some reason, here in Australia. Courgette is the French word for the vegetable which is also used in the UK. Archaeologists have traced zucchini’s origins to Mexico, dating back 10,000 years when they were an integral part of the ancient diet.
Mrs Beeton’s “Book of Household Management” (published in 1861) is a delight to the 21st century eye. In it she dispenses advice and direction to the housewife and housekeeper alike. She died when she was but 28 so you may wonder how she acquired all the wisdom that she dispensed. The answer is that she didn’t; most of the recipes were (as we might say today) ripped off. She was heavily influenced by her publisher husband, Samual Orchart Beeton. It may have been he who encouraged her to write of the responsibilities of the housekeeper. A good housekeeper “like Caesar's wife … should be above suspicion, and her honesty and sobriety unquestionable; for there are many temptations to which she is exposed.” There are indeed many temptations and the humble marrow may be one of them.
Whatever its history, at some time between the mid 19th century and the late 20th century the zucchini emerged in Europe as a vegetable in its own right. The 1967 edition of Larousse Gastronomique refers in its 1100 pages to courgettes as “little marrows”. The slightly later but equally massive (also 1100 pages) Modern French Culinary Art (1979), written by the wonderfully named H P Pellaprat, finds it necessary to add the phrase “baby marrows” to its description of courgettes. And so, I suspect, that it is not until the 1970s that the humble zucchini staggers onto the Western culinary stage. The Mexicans, of course, had been there thousands of years before.
Bottom left is the snappily named Henosepilachna vigintioctopunctata (the 28-spotted ladybird). Top right is the Aulacophora hilaris (the pumpkin beetle). Keep on top of these brutes by squashing them.
On the south coast, you should transplant zucchini seedlings between late August and September: they like the sun and they do not tolerate very cold temperatures. You can grow them from seed in well-composted and well-drained soil but the soil needs to have warmed up; the seeds germinate at about 18º C. You can sow seeds as late as January. Form the soil into small mounds and plant a couple of seeds in each mound. They will need watering to ensure that the plants can absorb calcium from the soil: this avoids blossom-end rot which is caused by a calcium deficiency. Once the fruit starts to form it can swell very quickly. It’s best to pick the fruit early so that they don’t become dry and hollow; they taste better if they are harvested young (not more than 10 weeks). The zucchini plant has little spikes all over which can be annoying when you are harvesting them. Of course, as I write this it is too late to plant zucchini; you should have done that a couple of months ago so you should visit the Farmers Market on Tuesday or the Saturday Market where you will them in quantity and quality.
There will be plenty to go around
Zucchini are low in food energy. They contain folate, potassium and vitamin A. Folate plays a role in copying and synthesizing DNA as the body makes new cells. Potassium helps keep your blood pressure down. Vitamin A is critical to several bodily functions, including vision, bone metabolism and skin health. None of this was even remotely in our minds when we took some of Kyle’s zucchini and put them through their culinary paces.
Stuffed zucchini flowers
We stuffed Kyle’s zucchini flowers (the very same as those in the picture above). I made a stuffing of tofu, pine nuts, mint, thyme, marjoram and parsley bound together with breadcrumbs and Argan oil. I have no idea what proportions I use: just make it firm and pliable. Stuff the flowers with the mix and chargrill them. When the flowers begin to char the fruit will be cooked al dente. The time from field to plate was about an hour, the distance travelled about 3 kms: sustainable food, lovingly grown and enthusiastically consumed.
Steaming and chargrilling
In my humble opinion, which is admittedly rarely humble, boiling a zucchini in water is not a good plan. They have enough liquid in them already so they just go squishy and they don’t look too good. Steaming them in a bamboo steamer is a better way to go; slice them thinly and once the steam is up they’ll cook in about 3 minutes. Better yet, chargrill them. I remember doing this many years ago when my then teenage daughter lived with me. The challenge was cooking them faster than she could eat them.
Take a container with a tight-fitting lid and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Hew up several cloves of garlic, perhaps 3 or 4, and add them to the oil. Take a couple of decently sized zucchini and slice them lengthways. Heat up a griddle pan so it’s very hot. Coat the zucchini slices with a thin layer of olive oil (an olive oil spray is the easiest) and grill them in batches on the griddle. As they cook put them into the container and put the lid back on while you’re doing the next batch. The steam makes the garlic infiltrate the zucchini. Eat them warm or cold.
Alternatively take a zucchini and julienne it. Place in a dish and sprinkle on a little salt. Add lemon juice and olive oil. Eat it. If you want to push the boat out then add some flaked almonds.
Zucchini cake with pistachios and cardamom
¾ cup (185ml) sunflower oil
1 cup (220g) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup (75g) unsalted pistachios, finely chopped, plus ¼ cup (35g) slivered unsalted pistachios to decorate
½ cup (60g) almond meal
2 cups grated zucchini (about 3 or 4)
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground spice
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1½ cups (225g) self-raising flour
½ cup plain flour
For the icing
180g unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups (200g) icing sugar (sifted)
250g cream cheese, softened and chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime
Preheat the oven to 170º C. Grease a 22cm springform pan and line the base and sides with baking paper.
Whisk together (use an electric mixer) the oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla until thick. Stir in chopped nuts, almond meal, zucchini and spices. Sift over soda and flours and stir to combine. Pour into pan and bake for 70 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in pan for 20 mins and turn onto wire rack to cool completely.
For the icing use the electric beaters to beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add the cheese, beating as you go. Add zest and juice and beat until smooth.
Slice the cake in half (horizontally!!) and smear the frosting in between the two halves and cover the cake. Scatter the slivered pistachios as appropriate.
You can freeze this but you’ll probably eat it before you get the chance.