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Zucchini: The ever abundant gift of summer

07/05/2013 12:51 PM

07/05/2013 12:53 PM

Summer has entered into the July transitional period where fireworks have faded from view and the days are stretching with long hours of hot sun and sweat.

Shade and cold water offer only temporary relief from the blazing inferno of a Kansas City day. The body longs for lighter foods, something refreshing to quench the hunger without weighing you down with unnecessary excess.

Farmers’ markets are in transition, too. Gone are the green days of spinach, asparagus and their ilk. The star of the summer nightshades — the tomato — has yet to make it’s dominating presence felt, though people wait eagerly for that heirloom signifier of summer.

Some earlier season vegetables remain, but the hotter weather brings more: cucumbers, eggplant and summer squashes to weigh heavy on the tabletops of farmers markets.

Perhaps no single vegetable signifies this transition quite like zucchini, the green vegetable that hits with a prolific fury in such a way that leaves even squash fanatics with more supply than they can possibly desire.

Some see this as a hindrance, turning to everything from zucchini bread or canning just to make it some how go away. I, on the other hand, see opportunity in this abundance.

Squash was a New World crop that crossed the divide of oceans and cultures over centuries, with zucchini returning to the lands of America at the hands of Italians, who bred the long thin green skinned vegetable we know now sometime in the 19th century.

The crop grows extremely well in American climates, which makes it a itself a summer staple, if not as beloved as the tomato, sweet corn or watermelon. Today zucchini is often relegated mostly to bland side dishes or the ubiquitous “vegetable medleys” on the tired menus of bored cooks.

But zucchini has versatile talents far beyond such status.

The vegetable boasts flavor and texture in its flesh, while also producing gorgeous and delicate flowers that can be utilized in multiple ways as well. Zucchini has a high water content, which makes it suited for raw or quickly cooked dishes while as well as long cooking applications such as gratins or a dish like ratatouille.

I have always found raw zucchini to have a number of traits I look for in summer dishes, where it may shine as a featured player. When zucchini is in the peak of its season, its pale green flesh and darker green-flecked skin have a tender bite but crisp freshness that holds its form and plays wonderfully in everything from salads to something entirely different, like zucchini “noodles.”

Shaved or sliced thin, then cut into strips to mimic a flour-based noodle, they make a lovely dish that is both delicious and refreshing but with the added bonus of never requiring the heat of the stovetop or oven. On hot summer days, that can be as refreshing as anything.

Zucchini can be maligned for being a bit bland, yet again I find this perceived weakness to be a strength as it allows for flavoring with any number of other ingredients or seasonings.

At this point of the summer, you can find zucchini at almost every turn. So when your own or your neighbor’s squash supply suddenly explodes, take it as an opportunity to experiment and play with its many possibilities.

Zucchini Noodles with Corn, Radishes and Mint Green Sauce

This vegan recipe highlights the mid summer bounty of zucchini with other prevalent summer players like radishes, mint and corn. It has the added bonuses of being raw, extremely healthy/low calorie and coolly refreshing without needing to be cooked. Zucchini and mint make fantastic mates, while corn and radish bring a bit of sweet and spicy to round out the flavors. A standard kitchen mandoline makes quick and easy “noodles” out of zucchini, but it is just as simply done with a knife and careful slicing (as pictured).

Makes 4 servings

4 large zucchini

3-4 ears of corn, kernels stripped from the stalk

3-4 breakfast radishes, sliced thinly in discs

For the Mint Green Sauce:

1/2 cup mint, chopped finely

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped finely

1/4 watercress, chopped finely

1/2 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1 serrano chile, finely diced (optional)

Salt/Pepper to taste

Make the Mint Green Sauce by combining mint, cilantro, watercress, lemon and chile in a bowl and slowly drizzle in olive oil, mixing ingredients to form a spoonable consistency.

Remove stem and round ends of zucchini, then cut down the zucchini lengthwise in very thin slices. Lay individual slices on cutting board and slice lengthwise again, to mimic the width of a noodle such as linguine or tagliatelle. The idea is for the zucchini noodles to become pliable, much as pasta would be. In a mixing bowl, add corn and radishes to zucchini noodles, followed by 2-3 tablespoons of the mint green sauce, mixing to coat all ingredients. At this point you could add other ingredients were you so inclined (Parmigiano Reggiano, capers, etc.) and mound noodle mixture onto plates. Garnish with more radish slices and corn.

Tyler Fox is a personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes a “nose-to-tail” cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.

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