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August 31, 2011

Locavore Lore: Squash your overabundance of zucchini

Country folklore warns that you should never leave your car windows open during squash and zucchini season, because you might find it piled high inside upon your return. Summer squash grows prolifically in the warm months, and by the time August rolls around, most home gardeners and farmers are squashed-out and will do just about anything to lessen their load. Did you know Aug. 8 was national Sneak Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day?

Anyone who has tried their hand at planting zucchini and summer squash knows that a few plants go a long way. When the plants produce, they go gangbusters, and harvesting only leads to bigger yields. Unlike tomatoes, which people can and stock, summer squash is best fresh, and this is why a surplus can present a problem.

Lucky for the rest of us, squash and zucchini provide a healthy and budget-friendly food that could arguably be one of the most adaptable vegetables out there. Aside from carrots, there aren’t many veggies that make appearances in desserts as well as savory dishes — and because of their mild flavor, they can be snuck into just about anything.

We may not all have people throwing free zucchini at us, but farmers market shoppers will surely notice it is one of the most affordable things at the market. The truth is, summer squash is hardly the star of the farmers market. It’s not the most exciting of the warm-weather crops — corn, tomatoes and peaches take center stage during the growing season, because the taste differs so dramatically in the winter months. Although the price might fluctuate with summer squash out of season, the taste isn’t significantly different.

Squash and zucchini have more in common than being amazingly awesome words in Scrabble. Summer squash is a broad description for many types of squash, including zucchini, yellow crookneck squash and patty pan varieties. Because of their similarities, they can generally be used interchangeably in recipes.

Squash grows quickly after pollination, which is why we often see so many giant pieces of yellow squash and zucchini. Optimally, elongated varieties of squash should be picked between 6 to 8 inches when they are young and tender. When they get bigger, they become seedy and tough and are better used deseeded and grated for use in breads and fritters. Grated zucchini can be stored frozen.

There are two things you shouldn’t ask me to do: Wrap a present or bake a cake. Actually, I’m sure there are more than that, but my wrapped gifts look like the work of a 4-year-old (whoever invented the gift bag is a genius), and I’m a lousy baker.

I love to cook, though, and can tackle just about anything savory, but desserts have to be simple to keep my interest. I like to taste and tweak as I go, and baking doesn’t allow a lot of room for improvising. If I miraculously pull off a baked good, it’s unlikely that such a treat will ever see icing, and if it does, it will surely not be an art form. As luck would have it, my sister is a professional baker, and she generally has all of my dessert needs covered. We make a pretty good party-throwing team: I make the savories and she provides the sweets. When I present her masterpieces, people ooh and ahh and applaud the perfection. It gives me an ego boost just bringing it out, and I don’t have to feel bad for presenting a lopsided, sloppily iced cake.

One of her most popular items is zucchini bread, which she also uses as a cake option. I called in the back-ups for a zucchini bread recipe, and this is courtesy of my sister. The zucchini bread is easy enough to pull off, and if you get ambitious, you can ice and decorate it.

Stellar Sweets’ Zucchini Bread
3 eggs
7 oz. canola or corn oil
2½ cups granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
11 oz. grated zucchini
4 oz. pecans (optional)

Butter two 9x5 pans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift or whisk all dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, oil, vanilla and zucchini. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients until combined, being careful not to over-mix. Bake approximately one hour or until you can stick a toothpick in and it comes out clean. (This makes two loaves of bread.)