I think I bit off more than I can chew.

Two weeks ago, I asked colleagues who are home gardeners if any could spare a large zucchini for a small experiment I planned. No need to sneak extras into unlocked cars if your vegetable gardens overfloweth, I said. Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming August garden. Please.

Portland Press Herald Executive Editor (and enthusiastic gardener) Cliff Schechtman stepped up to the plate. The very next morning, I found two zucchini, make that ZUCCHINI!!!!, at the foot of my desk, each about the size of a dachshund.

Gulp.

Happening by, several co-workers did double takes. A sports writer suggested that I “carve a canoe,” another reporter that I “brain someone with that.” (Clarification: That second was not a suggestion, merely an observation that one could.)

“Holy cow!” exclaimed a startled page designer.

“You could make ratatouille for an entire church supper,” said yet another writer, coming closest to the mark.

Open any cookbook, read any newspaper food section in August and you will inevitably see suggestions for using up the yearly glut of zucchini. Also, the admonition to use small summer squash, 6 to 8 inches long, for their tender skin; lack of large, tough seeds; and less watery, more flavorful flesh. The usual fate of behemoths like the two I now had in my possession is to rot on the stems, decompose in the compost heap, or serve as slop for pigs.

Was there no way to save this zucchini for dinner?

I stuffed one of my experimental subjects into my backpack with difficulty – the zipper wouldn’t close – and trudged home four (suddenly long) miles. The second zucchini I passed on to a surprisingly willing colleague, who claimed she intended to freeze it for use throughout the winter. Once home, I hefted mine from my backpack and balanced it on a digital kitchen scale.

“Error,” flashed the scale. (It maxes out at 7 pounds.)

So I took a selfie of me cradling the squash like a long, ungainly baby. (“Quick: What’s the definition of a food editor?” a co-worker joked, then answered her own question, “Someone who takes a selfie with a zucchini.”) A few days later, I showed my photo around at the Portland Farmers’ Market, asking farmers adept at weighing vegetables to estimate the zucchini’s poundage. Guesses ranged from 5 to 20 pounds. After lugging the thing home, I leaned high – guessing it was roughly double the weight of my cat (she is a comely 11 pounds).

To broaden the challenge I’d set for myself, I hoped to be able to use the zucchini seeds and juice, too. (Many recipes that call for grated zucchini require that you press the shreds dry in cheesecloth before adding them to fritter or cake batter, and then discard the liquid. Tomato water has been a hot culinary trend for a decade now. What about zucchini water?) My plan was to cook one zucchini dish every evening for as long as it took. “I will be eating it until the snow falls,” I joked in a tweet.

Alas, guests descended, a seasonal occurrence in Maine as regular as the onslaught of zucchini. My dear friend Katharina and her 9-year-old twins came all the way from Germany dreaming of Maine’s magnificent beaches. Hulking vegetables were on my itinerary, not theirs. I rearranged my refrigerator, man-handling the zucchini onto the top shelf. Over the next 10 days, I hacked off slices at 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., whenever I could steal a few moments to cook.

What did I make? I baked a sweet zucchini bread flavored with orange and a savory one with lots of cheese. I put up a quart of zucchini pickles and fried up just enough zucchini-feta fritters to feed four. I made a big pot of a minestrone, using corn stock made from corn cobs and zucchini juice as the base for the soup and then dicing zucchini among the vegetables, too. It tasted clean and light and pure – maybe too much so – like dinner at a spa. I threw together a nontraditional succotash using zucchini cubes, corn, green beans, bacon fat and cream. I added squeezed zucchini juice to a smoothie made with peaches, a few stray blueberries and yogurt. (Why should kale have all the fun?) I separated out the seeds, a tedious job, and roasted them with spices, but was rewarded with a crunchy, healthful snack.

All this from a single zucchini, one-quarter of which still occupies my refrigerator awaiting assignment. I may make ginger-and-zucchini-juice lemonade or swap out the chayote in New York chef Daniel Boulud’s recipe for beer-braised pork shank with cumin and chayote for zucchini dice. Maybe I’ll stir-fry zucchini cubes with good olive oil, salt and pepper and then scatter it with mint and toasted pine nuts. If anything remains after these experiments, I shall take a (cookbook) page from British cooks who often stuff vegetable marrow with pungent meats and cheeses.

Vegetable marrow? What? If a zucchini gets really big and mature, it needs an entirely new word, according to the British. Linguistically, they are spot on. Zucchini comes from Italian for “little zucche” or pumpkin. (The British actually call zucchinis “courgettes,” from the French, for courge, or marrow, and again that diminutive – ette.)

To cook these huge specimens, I found that I did need to peel them, as the skin is indeed tough. I also had to scrape out and discard their spongy, seedy center (save the seeds if you like). Finally, when baking, squeeze the shreds dry or risk gummy quick breads and cakes. And use that juice! These said, I didn’t find this mammoth zucchini noticeably blander or more watery than those of the usual size. If anything, it had a pleasant crunch, somewhere between a tender summer squash and a sturdy winter one.

The wit Dorothy Parker once defined eternity as two people and a ham. Make that one person and a very, very (very) large zucchini. Or you could look at it another way: a single squash gave its all – juice, seeds and flesh – and sustained me for more than a week. One generous, giving and much maligned vegetable provisioned me in sweets and savory food, breakfast and dinner, side dishes, beverages, condiments and main courses. Not bad for a vegetable whose habit of bulking up has been the butt of kitchen and garden jokes in New England for as long as I can remember. And probably a lot longer than that.

ROASTED AND SPICED ZUCCHINI SEEDS

The spicing is adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds. You need a large zucchini. The seeds of small zucchini are soft and juicy and will not work here.

Seeds from a giant zucchini

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Dash cayenne

Salt to taste (about half teaspoon)

1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil

To remove the seeds from your giant zucchini, scrap out the fleshy, seed-riddled center portion of the vegetable. Separate the large, woody seeds from the flesh. Soak in a bowl of water for a few minutes to remove more of the flesh and strings. Bring salted water to a boil, add the seeds, simmer for 10 minutes, drain.

Preheat the oven to 250 F. Spread the drained (but still wet) seeds on a baking sheet. Bake them for about 15 minutes until they are somewhat dry.

Meanwhile, combine the spices, salt and sugar. When the seeds are no longer soaked, remove them from the oven. Turn the oven up to 325 F. Drizzle – but don’t douse – the seeds with olive oil to coat, sprinkle the seeds with the spice mixture (you may not need all of it) and mix thoroughly. Bake for about 15 minutes until the seeds are nice and toasty, stirring occasionally. Watch carefully as they can burn easily. Remove from the oven and cool; they will get crispier as they cool. Store in a sealed container, if you can manage not to snack on them all immediately.

ZUCCHINI SUCCOTASH

I am very casual about this recipe – I don’t use measurements and let the recipe grow or shrink with the size crowd I am feeding. But you really can’t go wrong. You can use fresh lima beans or edamame in place of the green beans, in which case you won’t need to blanch them.

Green beans

Bacon strips

Butter, if necessary

Red onion dice

Zucchini dice (from a very large zucchini), about 1/3rd-inch dice

Fresh corn kernels

Heavy cream

Fresh basil, julienned, or thyme, lightly chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pinch cayenne

Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the green beans for 1 to 3 minutes depending on their thickness. When they are bright green and mostly cooked, drain and shock in cold water. Set aside.

Dice the bacon and sauté it in a cast-iron skillet until crispy. Set the bacon bits aside. If there isn’t enough fat in the skillet, melt a little butter in with the bacon fat.

Saute the onion until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini dice and soften slightly. Add the blanched green beans and the corn kernels. Let the vegetables brown slightly and soften. Add enough cream to moisten the ingredients and make them a little creamy and the herbs. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Let sauté a minute or so longer so the cream concentrates and the flavors meld. Garnish with the reserved bacon bits.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.