How to grow and enjoy summer’s most versatile veggie
When I think of summer in the Berkshires I think of my mom’s flourishing garden in the backyard and the tons of zucchini growing there. It’s like we had zucchini coming out of our ears, and I know we weren’t the only ones.
If you have a garden or if you visit the local farmers markets you’re bound to happen upon an abundance of zucchini, but have you ever thought about how good zucchini is for you? Or how about the seemingly endless possibilities of what to do with it? Well, as a nutritionist and self-proclaimed foodie, I sure have.
The zucchini is related to both the melon and cucumber and is actually considered both a fruit and a vegetable. Biologically, the zucchini is a fruit because it is the ripened ovary of a seed-bearing plant, but in the kitchen it is traditionally treated as a vegetable.
Zucchini is a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, the B vitamins, manganese, magnesium and zinc. The combination of B vitamins, zinc and magnesium help your body regulate blood sugar levels, protecting against diabetes. Additionally, zucchini contains a unique carbohydrate and soluble fiber known as pectin. Pectin regulates blood sugar by trapping carbohydrates and also reduces cholesterol by binding to it our intestines.
Zucchini, particularly its skin, is a great source of the carotenoid antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. These carotenoids, also found in carrots, protect our eyes from age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. These antioxidants along with omega-3 fatty acids found in the seeds give zucchini anti-inflammatory properties that protect against Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and gastro-intestinal problems. The combination of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties in zucchini help your body defend against cancer.
Zucchini is one of the easiest vegetables to grow, and you only need to plant a few plants to go a long way. Zucchini can be planted any time from early spring to mid-summer and takes approximately two months to reach maturity. The key to successful zucchini plants is putting four to five seeds under about an inch of dirt on a small mound or hill and leaving a few feet between hills. Keep the seeds moist, but not soaked.
After about six weeks your zucchini plants will start to blossom, and as soon as a week later you will have a zucchini. If you see blossoms falling off, or not producing fruit, don’t panic! Male flowers fall off the plant as soon as they release their pollen. It’s suggested to pick zucchini once they are about two inches in diameter and six to eight inches long. Or you could let them grow bigger and enter them into the weigh-off at the West Stockbridge Annual Zucchini Festival. However, once they get too big they will be tough and seedy.
Once you’ve harvested your zucchini or acquired some, zucchini should be stored unwashed in the refrigerator. They will keep for 3 to 4 days in the crisper, but may be kept up to a week in a plastic bag A great thing about zucchini is that they can be prepared in a whole variety of ways. Steaming zucchini preserves the most nutrients and antioxidants. Other easy ways to prepare zucchini are to simply slice, toss in olive oil and grill, sauté or roast in the oven. Zucchini can also be cut into spears and eaten raw with your favorite dip.
Want to get a little fancier? Use your mandolin or vegetable peeler to cut the zucchini lengthwise. Drop zucchini “noodles” into boiling water for one to two minutes until tender. Drain the “noodles” and eat as a side dish, or main dish in place of pasta.
Sick of zucchini with dinner every night? Put it in your breakfast or dessert! Zucchini can be grated and used in a quick bread recipe for a tasty breakfast or snack or in cupcakes for dessert. Although I am a nutritionist, I have a major sweet tooth. Of course when I think of dessert I think of chocolate. Never thought of combining zucchini and chocolate? Well, think again and try my “healthified” zucchini brownies that clock in at just 170 calories per brownie!
Did you know you can also eat the zucchini blossoms? If your zucchini collection is building up quickly, pick the blossoms before they grow into fruit and use them in a variety of ways. The blossoms can be battered and fried, baked, stuffed, or used as a garnish.
Make sure you’re not zucchini-ed out by August and go check out the West Stockbridge ninth annual Zucchini Festival on August 11. At the festival you can decorate, race or catapult a zucchini, enter the zucchini weigh-off or baking contest, and play games all while enjoying live music and fireworks at the end of the night.