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Abundant zucchini

Zucchini at the farmers’ market. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

This time of year gardeners find themselves flooded with these smooth, thin-skinned, cylindrical dark green squashes — though new varieties come in many shades of green and yellow, and some are speckled or striped. They’re plentiful and cheap at farmers’ markets because they’re easy to grow with a prolific harvest. Last week’s food boxes even included yellow and green zucchini! Their delicate sweet flavor and creamy texture blends well with other foods and is a perfect addition to any summer meal.

That’s why Pennsylvania gardener Tom Roy and his wife Ruth submitted this “holiday” to Chase’s Calendar of Events. And now, Aug. 8 is National Zucchini Day. Or, as others have dubbed it, Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbors’ Porch Day!

Nothing conveys the bounty of a summer garden quite like zucchini. Humorist Dave Barry puts it this way: “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.”

Zucchini is the gem of summer squashes, which are members of the Cucurbitaceae family along with winter squashes, melons, gourds, and cucumbers. All squashes are native to the western hemisphere, where they were dietary staples as pa rt of the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. They have been cultivated for thousands of years in Mexico and Central America. Early European explorers brought zucchini to the Old World, and it became so popular in Italy that it became known as “Italian squash.” The Italians first grew them for the sweet, edible blossoms, but soon discovered that the hearty fruit is delicious as well. Our name zucchini derives from the Italian zucchino; in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand they are known by their French name, courgettes.

More tender than winter varieties, summer squashes have a thin, edible skin. They vary in shape, color, size, and flavor, but all parts of the fruit, including the seeds, are edible. Besides zucchini, other varieties of summer squash include crookneck, straightneck, saucer-shaped pattypan and pear-shaped chayote.

Because of their high water content (95%) zucchini are very low in calories (one cup sliced, raw zucchini has just 16). Although less nutritionally rich than their thick skinned winter cousins, zucchini contains fiber, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, copper, and vitamins C, beta-carotene (vitamin A), folate and riboflavin. In addition, they offer some antioxidants, including lutein, which is famous for its vision protective ability and may also have cancer fighting properties.

Summer fare calls for fresh, light meals that don’t heat up the house by using the oven, and don’t require standing long over a hot stove. Fortunately, zucchini’s delicate sweet flavor and creamy texture blend well with many foods, so zucchini is perfect in summer dishes.

There are countless ways to use this summertime bounty, and entire cookbooks are devoted to zucchini. They are easy to prepare and can be eaten raw or cooked in a myriad of ways. Simply rinse and cut the ends off. You don’t want to peel them, since the tender peel contains most of the nutrients. Depending on how you plan to serve it, you can shred, slice or dice them.

Zucchini can be stir-fried, sauteed, steamed, boiled, fried, baked, roasted, broiled, microwaved or grilled ± but don’t overcook; it’s best when still a bit crisp. It is great raw in salads, or cooked as a side dish. You can even shred it into long ribbons and use in place of pasta; it’s great this way with pesto. Shredded zucchini gets stirred into everything from soup to zucchini bread or desserts like cookies or brownies.

The possibilities are endless. Here are a couple recipes to get you started.

Easy Chicken-Zucchini Skillet

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon cooking oil

1 chicken breast, cut up

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric (optional)

1 large onion

4 oz. Portobello mushrooms, sliced

2 medium zucchini (one yellow, one green for a colorful combination)

1/4 cup fresh chopped dill

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream

Directions:

Heat oil in large skillet. Cut the chicken into bite sized pieces and add. Sprinkle with half a teaspoon salt, cover, and cook 2 – 3 minutes. Turn with a spatula and cook other side. Test for doneness; when chicken is opaque and cooked through, remove from skillet.

Peel and dice the onion. Dice the mushrooms. Rinse the zucchini, cut off the ends and slice thin. Add onion, portobellos and zucchini to the skillet the chicken cooked in; sprinkle with remaining salt, pepper and turmeric. Cook, stirring, 4-5 minutes. Chop the dill, and add. Remove from heat; stir in sour cream. Serve warm, with boiled new potatoes.

Serves 3 – 4.

Zucchini Sausage Skillet

Ingredients:

2 links sweet Italian or breakfast sausage

1 large onion

1 clove garlic

1 large or 2 small green peppers

1 medium zucchini (about 3-4 cups cubed)

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon each black pepper and turmeric

2 medium tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon basil

1/2 cup shredded sharp cheese (Cheddar, Parmesan etc.)

Directions:

Cut up sausage, and brown over low heat for 3-4 minutes in skillet, to release fat. While sausage browns, peel and dice onions; peel and mince garlic; wash, seed and cut peppers into one inch squares. Add to skillet, and lower heat. Cover, and cook 7 – 10 minutes.

In the meantime, cut the squash into one-inch cubes. Add to skillet, sprinkle with the salt, pepper and turmeric, stir, raise heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender (5 – 8 minutes). Wash and dice the tomatoes, and stir in along with basil and cheese. Cook about 5 minutes for flavors to blend, but not so long that the tomatoes dissipate. Serve right away over noodles or grain with a salad of fresh greens. Serves 3.

Option: To make this a vegetarian dish, omit sausage. Use a tablespoon of olive oil or other cooking oil to cook the vegetables. Add a cup and a half of cooked beans when adding the tomatoes.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on facebook at Words Are My World.

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