Zucchini is a summer squash related to the Cucubrita pepo species, which includes varieties of melon, squash, gourd, and pumpkin. Like most squash, zucchini has been cultivated in Central and South America for several thousand years, though the varieties of zucchini we most often see today were developed in Italy. Christopher Columbus originally brought squash seed to the Mediterranean and Africa.
The term squash comes from the native word "skutasquash" meaning "green thing eaten green," while the word zucchini is derived from the Italian "zucchino" meaning "small squash." The French and British call it courgette, which is used interchangeably for yellow squash as well. In South Africa, zucchini is often harvested as a baby vegetable (finger-size) and referred to as "baby marrows."
Zucchinis range in colour, from light to dark green; yellow or golden zucchini are yellow or orange in colour. Zucchini can be harvested young (finger-size as mentioned above) but can also grow to nearly a metre in length. Their soft skin contains a creamy white flesh, delicate in flavour and texture.
Zucchinis are generally considered a vegetable, though botanically, the zucchini is an immature fruit: it is actually the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower! Zucchini plants produce male and female flowers; the female flower grows directly from the emergent zucchini while the males frown from the plant on a long stalk. Both flowers are edible, with pistils and stamens removed. Most often, zucchini blossoms are deep fried as fritters or tempura, but they can also be stuffed, sautéed, baked, or used in soups. A popular Mesican dish, sopa de flor de calabaza, is a zucchini blossom soup, while quesadillas de flor de calabaza is a variation on a traditional quesadilla.
Most often served cooked, zucchini can be prepared in a variety of ways: steamed, boiled, grilled, stuffed and baked, barbequed, fried, and incorporated into many other recipes such as loafs, muffins, soufflés, omelets, and more. Italians enjoy breaded and pan-fried zucchini; it plays a key role in the French dish, ratatouille; while in Turkey, zucchini is the main ingredient in a latke-like dish made from shredded zucchini, flour, and eggs fried in olive oil and eaten with yogurt; the Greeks use zucchini in appetizers and also serve it stuffed with minced meat, rice, and herbs. Try it cooked simply with butter or olive oil, with a sprinkling of fresh herbs. It can be eaten raw too, shredded in salad or as part of a crudité platter.
Zucchini should be stored no longer than three days in the refrigerator as it is prone to chilling damage.
Zucchini is low in calories and contains folate, potassium, Vitamins A and C, and manganese. Summer squash contain an unusual amount of antioxidants that are especially helpful to eye protection. To obtain the most antioxidants from zucchini, be sure to eat not only the flesh but the skin and seeds too.
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Grilled Zucchini with Pea Shoots and Tomatoes
(Transform this summertime recipe by roasting the zucchini instead of grilling, and substituting pea shoots for the purslane.)