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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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I've got a friend in Indiana with an enviously beautiful yard and garden. Of course this yard is in a not-so-big town in Indiana, so I don't envy her completely, but I look at photos of her garden and dream of the bounty she stands to harvest through October. Then I grab a tote bag and bike off to a farmer's market.

She recently took photos of some of the bumper crop of zucchini and yellow squash she has and asked what else she could do with these vegetables. I imagine there are only so many summer squash stir-frys you can make before you get a little bored. And she happens to have a young son, which means that the recipes have to be at least occasionally kid-friendly as well. Seemed like a tall order, but I got straight on the research.

Zucchini are like the rabbits of the squash world. These things mulitply and multiply until you find yourself shredding zucchini over your breakfast cereal because you've run out of ways to use it. And if you don't want to waste anything you're going to have to find a way to preserve it. Unless you have a dehydrator (zucchini jerky?) your next best bet is the freezer. But if you just freeze the whole zucchini, when you thaw it out, it's going to be incredibly mushy and mealy. You need to get some of the moisture out of there before you put it in freezer bags.

The easiest way to do this, is to peel the zucchini (but save the peels to make a veggie stock) and then shred it. These shredded bits can go into zucchini breads, zucchini fritters, turkey meatloaf, zucchini pancakes, and much more. Once you've got a pile that is shredded, put it into a colander, sprinkle with some salt, and set out to drain for about an hour. Once some of the moisture has drained away, now you can measure it out into one-cup scoops and either package individually or pile onto a baking pan, freeze, and then remove to a large freezer bag. These will then last you until next time you have a bumper crop of zucchini.

If you want chunks and will either be cooking them in recipes where they can be mushy or don't mind the texture, go ahead and slice them and then freeze them in a large bag.

If you're looking for ways to use them now I'd like to suggest grilled zucchini, zucchini "lasagna", zucchini pancakes, and stuffed zucchini.

Grilled Zucchini
1/2 zucchini per person
Olive oil

This hardly feels like a recipe, but peel each zucchini (or wash thoroughly to remove pesticides and waxes) and cut into long strips about 1/4-inch thick. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill for 2-3 minutes on each side. Once these are grilled they can also be frozen and then put into a soup before pureeing over the winter to provide a hearty and smoky flavor as well as to provide texture. They'll keep cooked like this for about 5 days in your refrigerator and they'll keep in the freezer for up to six months.

Zucchini Lasagna
2 pounds of zucchini
12 oz of ricotta cheese
2 oz of parmesan cheese
1 large handful of fresh herbs (basil, thyme, oregano) that have been chopped
2-3 slices of prosciutto if desired
Olive oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. If the zucchini are small and the skin isn't bitter it can be left on. Wash the zucchini well and chop off the stem. Slice into 1/4-inch thick slices. These will become your "noodles." Pour the ricotta cheese, 3/4 of the parmesan cheese, and the chopped herbs into a large bowl. Mix thoroughly and taste to see if salt and pepper are needed. Add if desired and stir again.

If you want to add the prosciutto, chop it into small bites and add to the mixture at this time. Place the zucchini strips into a large bowl and pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil over the slices, tossing to coat evently. Cover the bottom of a glass casserole dish with a layer of zucchini slices. Using a spoon, spread 1/3 of the mixture over the "noodles". Repeat until you've used all the zucchini and all the cheese mixture. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese over the top and pop into the oven to bake for about 30-40 minutes. The mixture should be bubbly and when you pierce the dish with your fork, you shouldn't feel much resistance from the zucchini. Let cool for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Zucchini Pancakes
One of my favorite ways to eat zucchini when I was younger was fried. This is a much healthier version, but still just as good. No, really!

1 1/2 pounds of zucchini
1 teaspoon of salt
1/4 cup of thinly sliced sweet onion
1 large egg
3/4 cup of coarse bread crumbs
Pepper to taste
Vegetable oil

Shred the zucchini using the large holes on your grater and place into a colander. Sprinkle with the salt, toss, and let this sit to drain for about a half hour to an hour if it is really humid. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees, or lower if it will go lower. You'll use the oven to keep cooked pancakes warm until you're done.

Press as much of the water out of the zucchini that you can and then mix all of the ingredients except the oil, in a large bowl. Lightly brush some of the vegetable oil on the bottom of your skillet. You want the skillet to be incredibly hot but you don't want the oil to smoke. Drop a heaping tablespoon of mixture into the skillet and press flat with your spatula. Repeat two to three more times in the same skillet. Cook this for about three minutes before flipping to the other side to cook for another two to three minutes.

You want the outside to be crispy and light brown. Once you think this first batch is done, put them on an oven-safe plate or casserole dish and place them in the oven. Apply another coat of oil to your pan and cook another batch. Repeat until you've run out of mix. Serve with some green chile salsa, or sour cream, or eat plain. Once these are cooked, they'll freeze for several months.

Stuffed Zucchini
4 pounds of medium or large zucchini
1 large can of chopped tomatoes, or about 6 medium tomatoes chopped
1 large onion, chopped finely
2 tablespoons of minced garlic (about 5-6 cloves)
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable stock
1 large bunch of fresh parsley chopped
Pepper and salt to taste
3 cups of cooked rice (brown rice tastes better in this)
1/2 cup of grated cheese (a easy-melt cheese like anejo is best)
3 pitted dates chopped finely (or other dried fruit)
1 cup of finely ground nuts (almond, walnut, pine nuts, brazil nuts, pecans, etc.)

Wash the zucchini thoroughly to remove any waxes that might be on the skins. Slice them lengthwise and use something like a melon baller or a spoon to scoop out as much of the insides of the zucchini as you can, being careful not to poke a hole in the shell.

Put this into a saucepan and add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, stock parsley, and salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the rice and simmer until the mixture is mostly dry. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Let the mixture cool (or freeze the mixture at this point to use later) slightly before stirring in the cheese, dried fruit, and nuts.

Once it is well-mixed scoop it into the shells. Place the shells into a non-glass baking dish. Drizzle each shell with a teaspoon or two of olive oil, sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper if necessary. Cook for one hour and serve warm. (You can also let these cook for about 30 minutes before letting them cool and freezing them. Let them thaw in your refrigerator and then bake for 30 minutes. They should keep for about three months. If you sprinkle cheese on the top instead of adding it to the mix, they'll freeze for up to six months.)

With just a little bit of work now, you can turn those inexpensive and super-fresh veggies into meals that will help you beat the winter doldrums next winter.

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