In midsummer, it's hard to escape zucchini, or green squash. It grows like crazy in the home garden and is easy to prep. Perhaps these factors have sealed its fate as a culinary multitasker; zucchini is not only a common vegetable side dish but can also be incorporated into bread and desserts. And, of course, the long, thin squash can be transformed into zoodles, a gluten-free alternative to traditional spaghetti.
What Is Zucchini (Green Squash)?
You might wonder, is zucchini a squash (yes and no), and what is the zucchini origin story?
Zucchini, Cucurbita pepo, is a member of the cucumber and melon family and is harvested while immature, making the rind tender and edible, like all summer squashes.
Botanically, zucchini is a fruit, but it's treated as a vegetable. It is derived from a similar vegetable that was common in Mexico and the northern parts of South America thousands of years ago. Squash was one of the main foods that Indigenous peoples ate, along with corn and beans. The term squash comes from the Narragansett tribe's word askutasquash, which means "eaten raw or uncooked."
However, today's version is a variety of summer squash developed in Italy, where it was often referred to as green Italian squash. The Europeans who colonized the Americas brought it back to their homeland, where its cultivation began. The word zucchini is the plural form of the Italian zucchino, meaning a small gourd.
It's not expensive, and that's especially true in the summertime, when it's found in excess in home gardens and farmers markets.
How to Cook With Zucchini
The sky is almost the limit with this veggie. Grated, it works well in sweet and savory dishes, whether combined with fresh herbs and feta cheese in fritters, or with cinnamon, sugar, and/or cocoa powder for breads and cakes.
Slice it lengthwise, put some salt and pepper and a bit of olive oil on it, and grill. Roast it with other summer vegetables under high heat for a short amount of time with some fresh garden herbs. Scoop out the insides and stuff it like a pepper, or layer it with tomato and cheese and you've got zucchini parmesan. Or pickle it or even dehydrate it. And true zuke lovers know that fried blossoms are a fleeting delicacy to be anticipated, and savored.
What Does It Taste Like?
Zucchini's flavor is mildly vegetal with just a hint of sweetness and nuttiness, which partially accounts for its versatility, as it makes it something of a culinary blank slate. It tends to be watery, which means it's an excellent candidate for adding moisture to breads and cakes—try it in a chocolate cake, you won't even know it's there.
At the height of its season, there's only so much zucchini bread and garden surplus you can give away. Even the most resourceful cook can feel challenged to source enough zucchini recipes to keep up with the supply and fend off potential culinary boredom. Beyond bread, pizza, tacos, pasta, soup, quiche, and frittata can all benefit from the addition of zucchini.
Where to Buy Zucchini
Zucchini is available all year round in the produce section of the grocery store, usually displayed next to yellow squash. And whether you call it green squash, zucchini, or something else, in the summertime, under the right conditions, it's all the same squash that produces fruit quickly, easily, and abundantly in home gardens. No garden? No problem. It's inescapable at farmers markets. But there are a few things to look for when shopping.
Smaller zucchini (under 8 inches long) are more flavorful, tender, and contain less water than the larger varieties. The ones that were somehow missed in the garden before they became overgrown to the size of baseball bats are the ones you want to save for bread making—they're a little more bitter (not a problem if you're baking with it) and more watery. Whatever size green squash you pick, the skin should be firm, green, and free of marks or indentations.
And if you see them for sale with the blossoms intact, consider yourself lucky. Take them home and fry them up.
Garden-fresh zucchini can keep well in the refrigerator, fresh, whole, and unwashed, for one to two weeks. Store it in an open plastic or paper bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge. It can also keep at room temperature, provided it is not too warm in your kitchen, for up to a week.
Although the term summer squash can reference a variety of different squashes depending on to whom you are speaking, in terms of cooking, you can pretty much use the summer squash varieties interchangeably. These include the yellow and/or green ones such as round zucchini, crookneck, pattypan, Zephyr, cousa, and tatuma.