Friday, 27 July 2012

Zucchini - A Versatile Vegetable

Source for this image here.

In point of fact, zucchini (or courgettes, as they are more commonly known in England) are not vegetables at all but botanically speaking, a fruit.  They are members of the squash and pumpkin family (the word "zucchini" simply means "wee squash"), though the plants usually ripen earlier, and at this time of year, many gardeners who grow them can find themselves with a glut of them to use up!

We don't have a garden, so we have been the very welcome recipients of several beautiful home-grown zucchini, thanks to the generosity of one of Papa Bear's colleagues.  He brought them home yesterday, and so far I have already used one, to add to a salad that we ate (both at home and at work) today for our midday meal.  You may be surprised to hear of it being eaten raw, in a salad, but in truth it works very well, partly because on its own, it doesn't really have very much flavour.  It picks up the flavour of other ingredients very well though, so it is a great addition, bringing colour and texture, and, since it was free, a frugal one too!  Even if we buy them at the supermarket, at this time of year they are inexpensive, and so useful in many different recipes.

For the salad we had today, I simply cut up the zucchini into thin matchsticks, and added it to chopped apple, cucumber, celery, red onion, a few fresh peas we had left over, mixed leaves and some pea shoots, and then mixed these in a home made salad dressing using red wine vinegar, walnut oil, a little garlic paste, a teaspoon of honey, a dash of mustard, the juice of 2 lemons, some celery salt and ordinary sea salt and freshly ground pepper.  As I made this first thing this morning so that Papa Bear could take some to work with him, the veggies were able to marinate in the dressing for several hours (I lay the salad leaves on the top, to be mixed in just before eating), so if I was making this when we were all at home I would want to prepare it at least an hour beforehand.  It was lovely!  I shall definitely be making this again.

That's not all zucchini are good for though!  You can use them in all kinds of savoury dishes - they work well with the warm, Meditteranean flavours of tomatoes, garlic and a good quality oil, such as olive or walnut.  They are lovely roasted with peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, aubergines (eggplant) and red onions, to be used as a base for a pasta sauce or rich vegetable casserole (rattatouile).  I like to use them in summer soups too - and they can be stuffed with other veggies, nuts and breadcrumbs to be roasted in the oven.  I've also made them into curries with pulses in the past, and sometimes add them to the ingredients for a vegetable quiche very successfully (they are quite watery so I tend to gently sautee them first).  We will be eating them again tomorrow, sauteed with onions and garlic and mixed with wholegrain pasta (we are really enjoying pasta dishes just now) and more walnut oil to create a warm spaghetti salad.

Later in the season, as summer nights start to draw in and the first leaves begin to fall from the trees, I like to set aside some time to make chutney, which I often use as part of the gifts in the Christmas baskets I've made in past years (we have an enormous family, which makes for an awful lot of gifts, even if we just stick to "close" family members, so home-made gift baskets are a great way to give a present to a whole family - parents and children - that they can all enjoy) .  I use a very old recipe that comes from a sweet wee book that I got years ago in a thrift store, by a lady called Mrs. Arthur Webb, which was published way back in 1947!  I normally make enough for several jars, and bottle the chutney I am going to give away in pretty jars, with a handrwritten copy of the recipe attached, and a wee "tea bag" of pickling spice to make it even easier!  It is so simple that I hope everyone will give it a try!

You need ...

2 lb apples (weighed after peeling & coring)
2 lb zucchini (weighed after peeling)
3/4 lb onions
1 1/2 lb sugar
1 tablespoon root ginger, peeled and crushed
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons mustard seed
pinch cayenne pepper
1 quart vinegar (you can buy special pickling vinegar in most supermarkets)

Start this recipe the day before you plan to make the chutney.

1.  Dice the zucchini, then place pieces in a bowl, layering with a little salt as you go.  Cover and leave overnight (no need to refrigerate).

2.  The next day, drain any water that has come from the zucchini (there may not be much - it depends how large the vegetables were.  In the autumn they tend to be bigger, and in fact you can substitue the zucchini with the same weight of marrow, but I prefer not to use these as the skin is so tough I find them impossible to cut open).

3.  Chop the apples and onions, then place in a large preserving pan,  and mix the zucchini pieces with these.  Add the vinegar, sugar and salt and mix well.

4.  Take a piece of muslin cloth (I use an old baby muslin, cut to size and reused just for this purpose - a clean dishcloth or handkerchief will do just as well) and tie the mustard seed and ginger inside this so that it makes a little bag (you may need to tie it with string, rather than use the cloth itself).   If you don't want to do this stage, omit the mustard seed and ginger, and use one of the commercial pickling spice mixes instead, which come ready packaged in a "teabag" that you can add to your chutney.

5.  If you are using the muslin bag technique, then place it in the preserving pan with the other ingredients, and tie the ends/string to the handle of the pan.  This way it will be easier to fish out when you are done!

6.  Simmer for 2 hours, until it is well blended and reduced down.  Unlike jam, which you have to worry over a little more, chutney is much more well-behaved, and there is no need to check for a set - it can take a little more, or less cooking and will still be fine.

7.  Remove the seasoning bag (whichever option you chose), then turn the cooked chutney into warmed, sterilised jars (I sterilise my jars by baking them in a low oven for about 15 minutes, which means they are ready to use immediately).  Seal when cold.

Of course, because zucchini is so delicately flavoured on its own, you can also use it to make sweet things!  You can in fact use it to make jam, though I have never tried, and you can also make it into breads, or cakes, when it often takes on a similar characteristic to carrots or bananas, adding a delicious moistness to your baked goods.  Here is a link to a recipe for zucchini cake which is very easy (and successful) to make, from my favourite recipe website, Taste of Home.  My family thoroughly recommend this cake (even with my hungry menfolk I tend to halve the recipe) though unfortunately, this time around, there isn't quite enough zucchini to make it! 

Finally, it is also possible to use the flowers of the zucchini plant to add interest to your cooking as they are perfectly edible, and considered a delicacy in many different parts of the world.  We have only eaten zucchini flowers once, when one of my sisters served them fried in a light batter.  They were interesting - but not something I'd hurry to eat again!  However, I am sure that there are many other ways to eat them, perhaps as part of a salad, and they certainly add a lovely summery brightness to any dish with their vivid yellow colour.

So don't overlook the zucchini when you are wondering what to serve your family for a change of pace with your menus!  It may not seem like a very exciting vegetable on its own, but it has many possiblities, and as it is so cheap at this time of year, it is also a great way to eat economically, but healthily too.