Eat them before they take over.

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Friday Food Post: Face Your Zucchini Fears

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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It's a time of year that is greeted with equal parts anticipation and dread in our great land: zucchini season. Suddenly, there's so much of it. It crowds the tables at your farmers market and crams the steam trays at the local buffet. Six pounds arrive in the new box from the CSA, or your friendly neighbor stops by with a basket, since she's had such a bumper crop this year. It's something of a mystery why every gardener ever ends up with far too much zucchini; perhaps it's the only thing that the squirrels and the gophers won't touch. From this many wary diners have drawn a lesson: Zucchini is the three-bean salad of vegetables: always the last thing to go because no rational creature would eat it.

I used to be one of those diners, perhaps because the preparations that were offered up were usually so dismal. There it is, healthily steamed to unpalatable softness, without even a hint of salt to distract you from the horrible mouth feel. There it is again, chopped into matchsticks that have quickly grown sodden from the other vegetables' juices. We will not even mention the horrors of frozen zucchini, because this post is family friendly. And of course, there's always zucchini bread. Zucchini bread is basically okay, unless the baker has gotten carried away with the wheat germ, but that's because the zucchini is largely superfluous to the operation. You're eating a sweet tea cake that bears the same relationship to a fresh vegetable as an Audi A8 does to a chunk of bauxite.

Then I discovered that zucchini, cooked properly, is actually very delicious. What does "cooked properly" mean? Well, the problem with most zucchini recipes is that they bake the heck out of it with other ingredients, which leaves you with one of two problems: It's fine, but the zucchini is largely extraneous, or the zucchini is a major ingredient, and it's disgustingly soft and watery. Zucchini breads, muffins and other baked goods usually fall into the former category; into the latter, we must put such abominations as "zucchini lasagna" and other casseroles in which the zucchini's main effect is to detract from other, more delicious ingredients.

So how to make a dish where zucchini is really a star? Ideally you start with a farm fresh vegetable at the peak of its charms, but this is not strictly necessary; we eat zucchini all winter too, because my previously zucchini-phobic husband has learned to love it as much as I do. The most important thing is to use a cooking technique that gives you something crisp and delicious, rather than some mushy mess with a dominant impression of "gelatinous."

There are basically three ways to achieve this: Caramelize the sugars in the vegetable with lots of heat; deep fry it; or cook it as little as possible, just enough to move it from "raw" to "hot and tasty." This last technique is the hardest, because without carmelization to give you a flavor assist and sweat out the excess water, the line between "delicious" and "disgusting" is so thin as to be practically invisible, especially if you are making it into zoodles or slicing thin, when three minutes is the maximum over heat, and two is often better. Charring, roasting or frying is more forgiving but takes longer and is not always quite so healthy.

Okay, you say, I get the idea, but how do I get started? That basket of zucchini is not getting any younger. Fortunately, I happen to have a couple of recipes right here....

Shrimp with zoodles

Make enough zucchini noodles for your family using a spiralizer (you can get a cheap one at Target). My rule of thumb is one person, one medium-to-large zucchini. Put on a plate beside the stove and set aside.

Make the shrimp and the sauce:

  • 1 2 lb bag frozen raw peeled and deveined shrimp
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1-2 tablespoons fresh or frozen lemon juice (not from the big "real lemon" bottle)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1-2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes plus a tablespoon of paprika
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 2-4 tablespoons heavy cream, or more as your waistline permits. 

Over medium heat, melt the butter in the pan. Cook the shrimp, stirring, until they are white fleshed and firm. Remove from the pan. Add wine, lemon juice, tomato paste, spices, and cook, whisking together, for two minutes. Toss in the cream and the zucchini noodles. Cook 1-2 minutes until the noodles are just done, because as I've noted there is a fine line with zucchini noodles between "delightfully al dente" and "disgusting slop." Put the shrimp, sauce and noodles in a serving dish, stir together, and serve.

Summer squash fritters with dipping sauce. I am not going to pretend that this is good for you. On the other hand, it's probably marginally better than French fries, and it uses up zucchini in a spectacularly delicious fashion.

Deep roasted zucchini with lemon and Parmesan

  • 6 yellow summer squash and/or zucchini
  • 3 tablespoons herbes de provence
  • 2 lemons
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese

Slice zucchini thin, about 1/4 inch. (I use a mandoline). Zest the lemons with your microplane grater and toss with the zucchini and the other ingredients in a bowl. Marinate in the fridge for a minimum of one hour; this can be made in the morning and left all day.

Preheat oven to 350. Wipe down a jelly roll pan or baking sheet with more olive oil, or use a spritzer. (This just keeps it from sticking.) Lay the pieces of zucchini on the pans.  Cook 30 minutes until they are just starting to brown. Turn the oven up to 400 for another 15-20 minutes, until they are nice and crispy. Do this to taste: My husband likes them practically carbonized, other people want them barely brown. Juice the lemons and sprinkle the juice over the cooked zucchini along with plenty of Parmesan cheese. Salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Grilled zucchini

  • 2 medium zucchini
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cajun seasoning

Slice the zucchini into 1/4 inch fillets lengthwise (you're looking for long, flat pieces of zucchini) and toss with the other ingredients. Make sure your grill is thoroughly pre-heated, and then grill 5 minutes on a side.

Zucchini salad.  This one's good for your waistline. Raw zucchini doesn't actually bring much to the party, but it is nice and crisp.

Parmesan zucchini sticks. Cooking basically doesn't get any easier than this.

Fried zucchini sticks 

All right, about all you can say for this recipe is that it's better for you than fried mozzarella. Oh, and very tasty.

  • 3 medium zucchini, halved and then cut into eighths
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh-grated Parmesan
  • 1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or a quarter teaspoon of cayenne
  • 2 large eggs
  • olive oil for frying

In a deep frying pan, heat two inches of oil to 350 degrees over medium heat (use a thermometer to check the temperature)

Mix the Parmesan, breadcrumbs, salt, and Aleppo or cayenne in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Beat the eggs in a bowl. Dip the zucchini into the egg wash, and then roll in the bread crumbs. Fry the zucchini sticks until they are a crispy golden brown. Serve with aioli or marinara to dip.

And there you are. A number of delicious recipes that allow you to actually eat zucchini, rather than pushing it around your plate, or disguising it as a dessert disguised as something healthy. Now go knock on your neighbor's door and ask if they might have a few spare zucchini.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net