Saturday, July 16, 2011

Zucchini 101

Why is it that people have so much zucchini year after year? You'd think that seasoned gardeners would know that you don't need many plants to supply you, your friends, your family and complete strangers with enough zucchini to make them completely sick of that elongated gift from the garden until next summer when you plant too much of it again. Do our brains hibernate in the winter causing us to forget that a few seeds equals a few zillion squash, that we will again this year (like we have in all the years past since we've grown this in our garden) look under one of those fan like leaves and see a monstrous fruit that has grown to the size of a small dog and is no longer fit for anything other than a doorstop?

I can't stop you from growing too much zucchini this year--it's way too late for that seeing how July is fast on it's way out and August looms ahead--but I will try my doggonest to broaden the possibilities beyond the 25 loaves of zucchini bread taking up every space in your kitchen while you try to figure out what to do with the dining room table groaning under the weight of squash plus what's still in the garden. And, yes, I'll even include a very tasty recipe for zucchini bread in a future blog.

The first recipe I'm going to offer is about as American as one could get. It's one of those get-your-family-to-eat-their-vegetables recipes. It's also so easy that you've got to try it once even though you may have to buy a box of America's favorite baking mix.

Zucchini Casserole

4 cups peeled, chopped zucchini

1 cup Bisquick

2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter

1 egg

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and pour into a buttered 8x8-inch baking dish.

Bake at 350f for 30 minutes.

I know I should have started out this blog with appetizers and then moved on to the other courses but this is a blog and not a cookbook. Still, I will move on to what has turned out to be the appetizer of the summer in this house thanks, in large part, to the utilization of an herb that has taken over our property for the last several years but which I have only started to use this summer.

It must have been four or so years ago that Jim, inspired by our trip to Italy, bought an herb to plant in one of the corner planters of a bed, an herb which he only knew was "for cooking," one which I'd neither heard of or ever used. There it sat year after year. No, I'm wrong. It didn't "sit." It spread. It explored. It put down roots. Put down roots in the fertile and the rocky. The moist and the dry. It made the mint look like homebodies. The oregano, shrinking violets.

What's more, it had an odd smell. It couldn't decide whether it wanted to be mint or oregano. It wasn't until I started watching David Rocco's program Dolce Vita that I discovered what our mystery herb was.

An herb resembling oregano in looks (mint and oregano in taste and smell), Nepitella comes from the Tuscan region and finds its way into mushroom and eggplant recipes. But a little inspiration coupled with an unexpected bag of zucchini proves to find another use for our little invader. When I asked Jim for a couple (this means "two" in most circles) zucchini and he brought back a couple pounds, I knew I had to make plans unless I wanted to see them shrivel like little green mummies in the crisper pan. This brought me back to the scapece I'd been making last summer. Although it had been around forever, scapece was brand new to me and I soon came to love it. Jim didn't seem to mind it too awfully but it was the mint involved that put him off. (He hates mint in anything savory.) It was then that I saw the opportunity for an end to the zucchini dilemma, a compromise to Jim's fussy attitude towards mint and the forest of Nepitella which was slowly yet surely invading the entire landscape of West County Sonoma.

Instead of using mint to nestle the deep fried discs of zucchini in, I would substitute the leaves of the Nepitella plant. This proved to be a winning idea. I hope you'll take the time to make this Italian treat this summer. If you can't find Nepitella, use mint or a combination of half mint and half oregano. Also, this does not use many exact measurements but calls for a sprinkle of this and a pour of that. You'll see. It turns out good every time.

Zucchini a Scapece

1 pound of medium zucchini


Olive oil

1/4 cup of torn Nepitella, mint or mint and oregano leaves.

2 garlic cloves, smashed

Red wine vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Place garlic and herbs in a bowl.

Clean zucchini, cut off stem and blossom ends and cut into very thin rounds about the same thickness as a coin.

Sprinkle zucchini slices lightly with salt, toss and place in a colander to drain for 30 minutes.

Dry on kitchen or paper towels

Heat an inch of oil in a pan and heat until very hot. (A disc of zucchini should immediately start to sizzle. If it sinks to the bottom, the oil is not hot enough.)

Fry in batches until light brown on both sides turning once.

Remove with slotted spoon to the bowl into which you've put the garlic and herbs.Sprinkle with a little of the vinegar and toss with the garlic and herbs.

Repeat with the remaining zucchini.
Add a few grindings of freshly ground black pepper, a little extra virgin olive oil and mix again.

These can be made a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator. Bring to room temp before serving.


July 18, 2011

As I mentioned on the show today, when I first came out to California, I landed in Santa Moncia where I spent the first five years as a Cal resident. It was there that I discovered deep-fried vegetables of which my absolute favorite was the battered and fried zucchini sticks that the Santa Monica Cafe served. Being a mid western boy, my batter-fried veggie experience was limited to drive-in onion rings. (Still something that I love and crave but unfortunately am less and less able to find. Well, I find them but all too often, I wish I hadn't.) It must have been someone else in our party, during one of those many times I frequented that establishment, who ordered the fried zucchini sticks because I was still in the mindset that zucchini was something that you put in a sweet quick bread. Of course, the scales fell from my palate the first time I tasted them and they became part of my regular order there.

Fast forward five years and I found myself living in San Francisco where I attended San Francisco State University. My palate (and my pocket book) took me on the short excursions to Chinatown where a few days worth of food could be had for a few dollars. To my delight, I found that other parts of the city held gastronomic treasures for very little money as well. And none was so welcome as the Sunday and Wednesday farmers' market at the Civic Center which was transformed into an exotic mix of east and west on those days. Next to the exotic one could always find the familiar. Like fresh zucchini just picked that morning. Just the sight of a pile of it on a table with the dew still clinging to it and a drop of sap shining like a pearl on the stem from its recent departure from the vine, brought back that ache for the treat I'd discovered back in Santa Monica. But the feeling was magnified by the freshness of the squash. I knew these would make even better ones than the ones I'd had back there.

OK, they could have been better than the ones served at the Santa Monica Cafe if I had been able to get the right batter ingredients. Boxed mixes were just OK but not all that good. And the recipes I ran across were very disappointing. I used everything from egg yolks, to beat egg whites to seltzer water with pretty sad results. Then I got it. "It" was a cookbook by Marcella Hazan. I don't remember if it was her first or second but it had the quintessential recipe for batter-fried zucchini. And what's more, it couldn't have been any simpler.

Batter-fried Zucchini

1 pound zucchini, washed, trimmed and cut into sticks about 4 inches long and 1/2 inch wide.
1 cup water
3/4 cups
Oil for frying

Heat about an inch and a half of oil to a very hot temperature. (around 375f).
Pour water in a bowl and with one hand, sift flour over the bowl while whisking with the other until you get a batter the consistency of thin pancake batter.
Dip zucchini in batter letting excess drip off and fry in hot oil turning once as they brown.
Remove with a slotted spoon to a dish with paper towels. Salt immediately.
Serve with favorite dipping sauce. (Mine happens to be blue cheese dressing.)


  1. My mum refused to pick them tiny because 'that would be a waste' and then complained about having too many!
    I love them little and tasty and I would love every single recipe here! Yummy!

  2. Thanks, Joy. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you but my regular computer isn't letting me make comments on my Blogspot page.