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Produce Pete: Save Room for Summer Squash

Most people want to know if zucchini and squash are the same thing.

The answer is yes! Zucchini is the Italian word for the fruit, which the French call a “courgette.” In the United States and Canada, we refer to most plants within the cucurbita pepo genus as “squash,” which I believe originally hails from a Native American word. So all zucchini are squash, but not all squash are zucchini.

Squash was a food staple in the Americas for some 8,000 years before the first European explorers arrived here. Like melons and cucumbers, squashes are edible gourds that are indigenous to North, Central and South America. The name comes from the Algonquin word “askutasquash,” which means “eaten raw” and probably derives from the kind of summer squash encountered by early European settlers. The Native Americans taught them how to store and use winter squashes, and also demonstrated the curative and hygienic properties of squash seeds. Following the practice of the natives, settlers ate whatever was available in the wild (fish, fowl, venison, etc.), which often carried parasites, so they cured themselves by eating squash.

varieties

Zucchini slices are a healthy substitute for pasta in Chef Bob’s Iron Skillet Zucchini Rollup Lasagna recipe. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano

The squashes commonly found in the US are divided into summer and winter varieties. Summer varieties are immature and usually small in size with a soft skin, white flesh, high water content and crunchy texture. Summer squashes are 100 percent edible, seeds and all, and are very perishable. Winter varieties are fully mature and usually larger in size, with a hard outer shell and a long shelf life. For that reason, they’re always eaten cooked. Most have an orange flesh that’s sweeter and nuttier in flavor than the more delicate summer squashes, and they contain large quantities of nutritious beta-carotene. The larger, harder seeds of winter squashes are usually discarded, but they can absolutely be salted, roasted and eaten like nuts.

Yellow squash and long, slender, dark green zucchini are probably the two most popular and familiar summer squashes, but there are other good varieties, too. These include the chayote, which is pear-shaped with white, pale or dark green skin; the cocozelle, which is shaped like a zucchini but has green and yellow stripes; and the tiny scalloped pattypan, which has white, yellow or green stripes and looks like a little flying saucer.

Summer squashes, especially zucchini, are generally available year-round, but their peak season is between April and September.

Selection and Storage

All squashes should have a solid, heavy feel; a squash that feels light for its size may be soft and dehydrated inside. Summer squashes should have firm but tender, sleek, unblemished skin. A shiny skin on yellow squash and zucchini is a good indication that it was picked young and will be tasty. Choose small- to medium-sized squashes rather than large ones for the best flavor and texture.

Store summer squash in the refrigerator in an unsealed plastic bag and use it within three or four days. Also, be sure to handle summer squash carefully because the tender skin is easily nicked.

Preparation

Summer squashes have a high water content, so don’t overcook them or they’ll turn to mush. (Overcooking is probably the culprit behind why so many kids hate squash!) There are exceptions, but zucchini, chayote, crookneck and cocozelle never need peeling—so if the squash looks nice and tender, leave the peel on, wash it and discard a thin slice from each end.

Summer squashes are terrific brushed with a little oil and cooked on the grill, but they can also be steamed, sautéed, stir-fried or baked in casseroles. If you’re going to boil a squash, use very little water. Cut the squash into horizontal slices (about a quarter of an inch thick); fill a pan with just enough water to cover the bottom; add salt, pepper and butter if desired; then cover and cook no longer than 3–5 minutes. Turn the squash a few times to cook evenly, and test frequently for doneness (when it’s easily pierced with a fork but retains some crunch). To grill squash, slice it lengthwise; marinate or brush it with an oil-based salad dressing or a mixture of olive oil, herbs and perhaps some garlic; then grill over a hot flame, turning it occasionally so it doesn’t burn.

Young and tender summer squashes, especially zucchini, are great eaten raw in salads or with dips. They’re also delicious lightly steamed, stir-fried in a little oil, or fried tempura-style in batter. There are many Mediterranean recipes that call for squash; it’s especially good in a ratatouille or baked with Parmesan cheese. Zucchini can also be used in zucchini bread—a sweet, almost cake-like bread that makes a nice dessert or breakfast item—as well as in muffins.

In our house, my wife Bette makes a cold zucchini salad that’s very simple, quick and delicious. Simply slice the zucchini and sauté it briefly in olive oil with a bit of garlic. Remove it from the heat and, while the zucchini is still hot, splash a high-quality vinegar on top (it can be a good wine vinegar, or a balsamic or herbed vinegar—whichever you prefer). Add some salt and pepper, and serve either warm, at room temperature or chilled. Because of its versatility, zucchini is a good staple to keep around the house. Sometimes if we get home late and neither of us wants to bother with a big meal, Bette will sauté zucchini and potato slices, then add beaten eggs to the pan when the vegetables are almost done. It makes for a terrific frittata.

Another great way to enjoy zucchini is in the following “lasagna” dish, made famous by my good friend and orthopedist, Dr. Robert Doidge of Englewood Sports Medicine & Orthopedic Surgery in Englewood. It’s very hearty and nutritious, and always hits the mark for a hungry group! I hope you’ll get your fill of summer squashes this season—enjoy!

Chef Bob’s Iron Skillet Zucchini Rollup Lasagna

Serves 6–8

  • 7 medium-sized zucchini (local and farm-fresh, if available)
  • 8 ounces pancetta
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 cup shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 cup button mushrooms
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • red pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • Marinara sauce of your choice
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese to taste
  • Parsley

Brown pancetta in a skillet and remove. Cook red onion and mushrooms in pan with a pinch of red pepper flakes to taste, then remove and deglaze skillet with wine. Return the pancetta and vegetables to the pan and add your favorite marinara (Dr. Bob makes his own with San Marzano tomatoes, oil and garlic, sautéed lightly and simmered for 15–20 minutes).

Cut off zucchini ends and slice thinly lengthwise, using a knife or mandolin slicer (watch your fingers!). Place on a rack, salt and let sit for 25 minutes. Wipe off salt and press down on the zucchini with a cloth towel to remove excess water. Marinate zucchini slices in olive oil, then grill zucchini over medium heat for approximately 6 minutes—only until tender.

Coat a large iron skillet with a thin film of oil and a light layer of marinara. Roll zucchini slices with a light layer of ricotta, parsley, Parmesan and mozzarella. Add salt and pepper. Place in a 375-degree oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly. Serve this gluten-free, low-carb mock lasagna to friends and family with a loaf of fresh Italian bread, good wine, good music and lots of laughter!


About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and TV personality who’s appeared on a highly popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, broadcast every Saturday morning for over 28 years. For more information, visit producepete.com.

About Susan Bloom
A regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey–based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for over a decade.

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