It’s a lovely summer’s day, with birds singing and the sun shining. Lately, there has been some much-needed rain. You open the back door, and you and your eager dog take a nice stroll down to the mailbox to see what the postman might have brought you today. But when you open the creaking front of that little metal box, instead of the usual white rectangles with colorful stamps, you find a hoard of long, shiny, deep green zucchinis.
Zucchinis are a plant that refuses to stop giving. Through wet and dry, through hale and wind, if you add some warm temperatures, those zucchini plants are determined to out-produce each other. There are the classic green cylindrical ones, shorter nutty striped ones, miniature globular ones, and even brilliant yellow ones. Expand into the world of summer squash and there are straight-necks and crooked necks, along with the flying saucer-like patty pans. Whatever form or color, zucchinis keep you hopping just to keep up with them.
I’ve learned to wear gloves when harvesting zucchinis. The long, hollow stems supporting dinner-plate leaves are lined up and down with tiny prickers. Reach too fast, and they can slice up hands and arms with ease. And woe to the gardener who doesn’t make it out to pick their patch at least every other day! It would be interesting to know the maximum growth rate of a zucchini because it certainly seems that what was a nubbin one day can become a gargantuan creature by the next.
My beekeeping mentor, Mr. Rowe, calls these “garden sharks.” At farmer’s market, about this time of year, there is a running joke about oversized zucchinis. Turn your back while setting up your stand in the morning, and you’ll return to find an emerald shark sitting on your table.
“Ok, who put the zucchini on my stand!?” you demand teasingly, but no one confesses. Eventually, you resign yourself to taking the beast home with you as a treat for the pigs. Even the most enterprising cooks know that a zucchini of that size is a bit too woody for cooking.
But zucchini preferences are about like pickle selection. Everyone has their idea of the “perfect” size for a zucchini. Some like them very tiny and tender, others like them a bit more robust. Part of this depends on whether the vegetable is destined for the sauté pan or grated into zucchini bread. At the beginning of summer, everyone seems excited to see zucchinis and make their favorite dishes with them. But as summer wanes, so does the enthusiasm.
I remember one year at the market a lady was perusing the vegetables on our table. “Oh zucchinis,” she remarked. “Well, I better not. My mother and I planted 64 hills of that this year.” I nearly fell over. 64 hills of zucchini? What were they thinking? I’ll bet they had so many zucchinis that the neighbors’ cars were filled with them, let alone the mail boxes. Have a family reunion coming up? Ok, everyone has to take home some zucchini, no excuses!
If you are starting to feel overwhelmed by zucchini, here’s one of my favorite recipes that will fool almost anyone into unknowingly eating this versatile vegetable.
Chocolate Zucchini Cake
¾ cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 cups zucchini, grated
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. grated orange peel
½ cup milk
2 ½ cups flour
½ cup cocoa powder
2 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 cup nuts (optional)
Powdered sugar to dust on top
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and beat well. Stir in the zucchini, vanilla, and orange peel. Mix the flour and other dry ingredients together in a second bowl. Alternately add the milk and the flour, beating until smooth. Stir in the nuts, if desired.
Pour into a greased and floured bunt pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes in the pan before turning out. Cool completely, dust with powdered sugar, and serve.
What’s your favorite way to prepare zucchini? Take some time this week for this remarkable and versatile vegetable and enjoy the flavors of summer. Looks like I better get out to the garden and pick again. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com