Nothing Ado About Too Much

Everyone jokes about the excess of zucchini that burden gardeners all summer long, and I see lots of anguishing about how to use them up. Ratatouille, caponata, breads, salsas, chutneys: the list is endless and not overly inspiring. My answer is to grow fewer of them. In recent years I have taken to planting just one or two plants and using the rest of the space for winter squash like kabocha, butternut, and acorn which last longer and have more culinary uses. As a result, finding ways to eat or preserve zucchini is less of a priority for me than it used to be.

Remember that your gardenless, non-CSA-subscribing friends will be less likely to label gifted zukes as the self-serving purge that they really represent, especially if you throw in some carrots, beets, and tomatoes to sweeten the deal. And yet, after years of painstaking research on the subject, I am happy to report that I have developed the single best way to eat them every day without getting sick of them (and that includes as a pizza topping, which doesn’t suck). And I have gotten a request for more vegetable posts, so here you go.

This method couldn’t be simpler, which only adds to its appeal. Wash the squash (I used summer squash here, but they’re interchangeable) and slice it into thin rounds about 1/16″ (1.5 mm) thick. Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan and throw in a smashed garlic clove once the oil is shimmering.

I should add that for this example I used a few tablespoons of oil left from making that recent fried chicken. While bacon or similar would be too much in this heat, the slightly meaty richness of once-used frying oil added a certain special savory something.

Follow the garlic with the rounds of squash and toss to coat with oil. Hit the pan with a generous pinch of salt and toss again. I like to start this on a pretty high heat, because there’s a fair amount of liquid that will render out before the browning starts. Let it sit, then toss it well. Keep doing this every minute or so until the pieces that you filp up from the bottom start to show some real color, then lower the heat a bit. Keep doing it. You don’t need to caramelize every piece—the tossing will carry that maillard flavor to less-browned rounds—but you want a meaningful percentage of them to be transformed by the magic of judiciously applied heat without having them all fall apart. This is not a dish you leave alone; standing near the stove is pretty much required. Once they have attained a good color, pour in a good-sized glug of vinegar: cider, sherry, red wine, or another (the kind doesn’t matter, but the quality does) and deglaze that lovely fond and toss to coat all the squash with it. Grind on some black pepper, garnish with the herb of your choice (thyme here, but chives or parsley work just as well) and serve.

You can also use sherry in place of the vinegar and flame it off before serving for a gentler, nuttier flavor that would work well with cheese.

The cooking and caramelization boil off a lot of water and add immeasurable flavor to what is otherwise a pretty bland and watery vegetable, and the acidity of the vinegar and sensuality of the oil give it fat and focus. It’s a perfect dish. My son will eat a big bowl of this as an appetizer, and other kids who think they don’t like squash end up putting it away in volume. It’s light enough for a muggy day and hearty enough for a rainy one. Try it and tell me I’m lying.

It can also form a significant part of a summer dinner; the rest of this evening’s meal was a bowl of freshly-pulled carrots cooked with spices (cumin, chili, smoked paprika, saffron) plus maple syrup and stout vinegar and enough water to let them attain al dentitude by the time it had evaporated. They’re little golden coins of joy, and a real celebration of seeds sown in April.

The protein portion was some swordfish, cubed and browned, then tossed in one of my all-time favorite insta-sauces: white miso and dijon mustard with enough liquid to thin it to a saucy consistency. In this case I thinned it with water and also added some of the mango chutney because it’s so good and has a particular fondness for fish. Orange juice, wine, stock—any appropriate liquid can work.  Miso mustard, as with miso butter, is one of the very best vehicles for making your food taste better. I garnished this with chives and togarashi.

The best thing about having a garden is being able to eat things at their very peak, picked mere minutes before they hit your plate. Even the bland burden of cucurbit surfeit can be a blessing if you transform it with the right mix of heat and seasoning. You may even find yourself foisting fewer of them upon your hapless neighbors.

The wine was something new: a 2011 Marrenon Grande Toque rosé from my old stomping grounds in the Luberon. For about $10 a bottle after the case discount, it reliably delivers the austere minerality that I so adore in Provençal rosés with enough fruit and herb notes to make it food-friendly. It’s not as deep or as finely detailed as some others, but the nose is superb with some time open and for the price it is not possible to argue with this wine. It’s so affordable that I was able to slip a bottle of 2003 Pernand-Vergelesses into the case and not notice it on the total.

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  1. Susan
    July 23

    What is the approximate ratio of miso to mustard? That sauce sounds totally fabulous…!

  2. Peter
    July 23

    It depends on what the liquid you’re using is, but say somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 miso to mustard. Let your tongue be your guide.

  3. Jay M
    July 25

    Thanks for the simple, but delicious preparation. I cooked up some of our freshly picked crooknecks this way for dinner with a few chilies and basil in the mix, then served over pasta with some fresh sorrel over the top. I’ll definitely be using up some of our zucchini this way as well! Keep up the good work!

    • Peter
      July 25

      Thanks. Let me know how they turn out.

  4. July 25

    Yay vegetables yay. Keep going.

    I enjoy caramelization as much as the next gal, but wow, this summer, I can’t bear to be near the stove. So I have been experimenting with vinegar cooking a la ceviche, making ribbons of squash or cukes and just soaking them in the stash of vinegars I have been making…it’s nice, as the result doubles as the evening salad.

    Must try miso/dijon though.

    • Peter
      July 25

      You’ve had more heat and less rain than we have. I do that with cucumbers, and have done it with zukes after seeding them, when they’re not too big and spongy. I also like to cut them on my spiral slicer to make noodles, which take well to salt and vinegar.

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