- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Zucchini are everywhere, especially now as they enter their peak season. You’ll see these slender, cylindrical green summer squashes piled high in supermarkets and on farmers’ market stalls. In so many restaurants right now, when a menu says “served with fresh vegetables,” what it means is “served with zucchini,” much to diners’ disappointment.

With so many zucchini around, it always surprises me how few people experience it at its best. There are two reasons why.

First, so many of us buy zucchini that are either too big or that have been sitting around too long after picking. As a result, the vegetable will have a cottony texture and bland flavor that are so different from the firm consistency and bright, clean taste of a really fresh young specimen. In fact, a couple years ago when I visited the Italian island of Pantelleria, I enjoyed a dish called zucchini carpaccio, made with vegetables that were so fresh that they were served raw, cut into slices almost paper-thin and garnished with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper and freshly cut shavings of Parmesan cheese. And the island’s salty sea breezes and soil alone had also seasoned the zucchini to perfection. Incredible!

Your best way to get zucchini that fresh is to grow the vegetable yourself, something gardeners find very easy to do, and then to pick them just before cooking. The next best choice is to buy zucchini from the farmer’s market or from a food store that has a good turnover in its produce inventory. Look for zucchini that feel good and firm, have a bright green color, and are medium-sized, no more than 8 inches (20 cm) long. One indication of freshness is the cut end of its stem, which should look clean and smooth, with no sign of withering or oxidation.

The second mistake most people make when they cook zucchini is to use water. The vegetable soaks up liquids like a sponge, winding up unappealingly watery in both its flavor and texture. For all those home cooks who routinely use their microwave ovens to steam vegetables at the last minute before serving dinner, I have one word of advice when it comes to using this method for zucchini: Don’t.

Instead, try sauteing zucchini quickly in a little oil over high heat, which keeps the vegetable crisp and fresh-tasting. Add aromatics such as garlic and fresh basil leaves for a Mediterranean touch, as I do in the recipe that follows, a perfect side dish for grilled or roasted meats, seafood or poultry. Or try a little fresh ginger to give the zucchini an Asian personality.

Zucchini will never disappoint you again.


Serves 6

1 pound firm, medium-sized fresh zucchini

3 medium-sized firm sun-ripened tomatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup finely shredded fresh basil leaves


Freshly ground black pepper

Over high heat, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a mixing bowl with ice cubes and water and set it aside.

Meanwhile, prepare the zucchini. With a sharp knife, trim off and discard their stem and flower ends. Cut each zucchini at a 45-degree angle into even slices 1/4 inch thick.

When the water is boiling, use a small, sharp knife to cut out the cores from the tomatoes and score a shallow X in their flower ends. One at a time, place the tomatoes in a slotted spoon or wire skimmer and lower them into the boiling water, leaving them there just until their skin begins to wrinkle, 30 to 45 seconds. Remove with the slotted spoon or skimmer and transfer to the bowl of ice water to cool. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off and discard their skins. Cut each tomato crosswise in half and, with a fingertip, scoop out and discard the seeds. Cut the peeled and seeded tomatoes into 1/4-inch dice and put them in a wire strainer to drain in the sink.

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add the olive oil and, as soon as it is hot enough to flow freely in the skillet, add the zucchini and garlic. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for 2 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and shredded basil and continue to stir over high heat until the zucchini is tender-crisp, about 3 minutes more.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the zucchini hot or at room temperature.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)





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