Zucchini: three cardinal questions.

Zucchini, European style: with blossoms attached

Zucchini, European style: with blossoms attached

In my old neighborhood, doors were locked only during zucchini season. This forced would-be zucchini donors to leave their boxes on the porch, like abandoned babies on church steps. The growers feel a sense of responsibility not to let their food go to waste but become so sick of zucchini they couldn't possible eat them all.

As the zucchini pile up, they begin acting like zombies. Granted, they're zombies that can't walk toward you with their arms out in front of them, but they keep coming nonetheless, no matter how many stir-fries, fritters, pizzas, and tamales you throw them at.

The relationship between man and zucchini can get so adversarial that the concept "know your enemy" from Sun Tzu's The Art of War becomes apropos. If you hope to weather a sustained zucchini attack, it helps to understand your foe. So here are three burning questions about zucchini, followed by my answers, that will help you appreciate, utilize, and understand this crop that, as we speak, is taking over gardens across the northern hemisphere.

Big or Small?

While any size zucchini is edible, the quality starts to decline practically as soon as they're big enough to see with the naked eye, and any zucchini larger than the average cucumber should be avoided. The seeds get bigger, the skin gets thicker, and the flesh starts to dry out. Many European shoppers won't buy a zucchini that doesn't still have a flower attached.

Speaking of zucchini blossoms, harvesting and eating them is a great way to keep your zucchini supply under control, as you're literally nipping future zucchini in the bud. Maxime Bouneou, a French chef in New Mexico, makes wonderful stuffed zucchini flowers. He prefers the blossoms that have a little pinky of new fruit growing from them, as if there is extra pleasure to be had in cradle-robbing. Or maybe he's been traumatized by zombies.

A final note on the big vs. small dichotomy: The difference between summer squash, of which the zucchini is a member, and winter squashes like acorn or butternut, is that summer squashes are eaten while young and tender during summer, and winter squash varieties are consumed after they harden in fall.

Fresh or Frozen?

Like most food, zucchini is better fresh. But before you allow a pile of zucchini to guilt-trip you into eating more than your body is designed to appreciate, remember: It's quick and easy to put that zucchini in frozen storage for later.

The University of Missouri extension recommends steam-blanching unpeeled grated zucchini for 1 to 2 minutes until translucent. Drain well and pack in containers sized to fit your favorite recipes. Cool by placing the containers in cold water. Seal and freeze. If watery when thawed, drain the liquid before using the grated zucchini.

Frozen grated zucchini can be a commodity in winter, successfully assimilating in a surprising number of dishes, from tomato sauce to stuffing to chocolate zucchini mayonnaise cake. When added to most dishes, grated zucchini keeps a low profile, quietly adding body, moisture, and nutrients to the dish.

So next time the zucchini logjam of summer turns into a pile-up, calmly grate, blanch, and freeze your extra zucchini and get back to enjoying the summer.

Sweet or Savory?

Clotilde Dusoulier, Parisian foodie and author of the blog Chocolate & Zucchini, writes that she hadn't even tried the two together when she chose that name. She simply liked the contrast between earthy, healthy zucchini and decadent chocolate. It turns out, she says (and I agree), that chocolate and zucchini play well together in both sweet and savory applications.

On her blog, Dusoulier shares an adaptation of a family chocolate cake recipe that she's modified to include zucchini. It's very involved but worth checking out. Alas, my family doesn't have its own chocolate cake recipe. But growing up we did usually have a jar of Hellmann's mayo in the fridge, and Hellmann's mayo always has recipes on the label, one of which was for chocolate mayonnaise cake. (You can find the recipe at Hellmanns.com.) This became the closest thing I had to a family chocolate cake recipe, and it opened the door to a realization I've lived by ever since: You can put mayo in practically anything and make it better.

You could almost say the same thing about zucchini, including in chocolate cake. I've had good luck adding grated zucchini to the Hellmann's chocolate mayonnaise cake, as well as many other chocolate cake recipes, including boxed mixes. The shreds of zucchini melt into the batter and don't interfere with the baking process, while adding moisture, fiber, and bulk to the finished product, even as it remains in the background, virtually undetected.

And on the savory side, a great summertime zucchini option is to sauté zucchini chunks with chopped onions until soft, then add fresh cut corn, garlic, crushed chiles, black pepper, and soy sauce. It's kind of like succotash, but there is no suffering involved. If only all zombies were so easily subdued as zucchini.

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