Get ready for a zucchini explosion to hit your garden and farmers markets

  • Get ready for a zucchini explosion to hit your garden and farmers markets near and far.

    Get ready for a zucchini explosion to hit your garden and farmers markets near and far. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

 
 
Updated 7/30/2020 1:23 PM

I once wrote a story in junior high about giant zucchini monsters attacking the Earth. These days, I try to pick my squash plants before the fruits get menacing. But this time of year, the vines go a little nuts and can get away from me. National Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day is Aug. 8, and I will likely be making some stealth deliveries under the cover of darkness. In the meantime, I will break out the spiralizer to make zucchini noodles, aka zoodles, a couple of times a week. They are scrumptious here with pesto, accompanied by cheesy, stuffed squash blossoms.

There are many short cuts for re-creating this dish but going the scratch route with kids is like putting on a magic show in the kitchen, making noodles from vegetables! Flowers you can eat! Turning milk into cheese! Pre-made zoodles and pesto can be found in the fresh and frozen sections of grocery stores, and packaged ricotta cheese is readily available if you are trying this on a busy weeknight.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The squash blossoms will be hard to find if you don't grow your own, but you might spot them at a farmers market or specialty grocer. If picking your own, do so early in the morning, before the flowers close up in the heat. Any type of squash blossoms, summer or winter, will work. Only harvest the male flowers, as taking female flowers sacrifices future squash. The "boy" flowers will be at the end of a thin straight stem while the "girls" will be at the end of a swollen mini-squash. Remove the stamen from each flower before giving the blooms a gentle rinse in the sink and storing them in the fridge until you are ready to fill them. If you accidentally snipped a female flower, you will see instead multiple pistils inside, which should also be removed. Some true Italian varieties will hold onto their flowers even after you pick the fruits so that you can enjoy those freely. Those pollen-laden stamens are bee magnets, so check that none have gotten trapped before bringing them inside. (I learned that the hard way.)

The filling of ricotta, garlic and greens for the blossoms is flexible. I used a mix of Swiss chard and Malabar spinach because I grow both. Regular spinach would be good, but it doesn't grow well in our hot summers; Malabar is actually a tropical vine with leaves that taste like spinach. Kale works, too. Take your pick. It will seem like far too many greens, but they will practically disappear before your eyes as they wilt in the skillet -- more magic! Typical stuffed squash blossom recipes call for frying, but I prefer the cleaner flavor and lighter mouthfeel delivered by baking with a brush of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of panko bread crumbs.

Making ricotta is surprisingly easy. Just don't use UHT (ultra-high temperature) pasteurized milk, as it won't form curds as well. I use whole milk for a creamy result. Feel free to recite "Little Miss Muffet" while you work. The leftover whey can be used in baking or for soaking and cooking grains.

A spiralizer is fun to use, but not necessary to make the zoodles. Instead, you can use a wide vegetable peeler and firm pressure to slice slabs down the length of the squash. Then stack the slabs and slice into thin, noodly strips. Any summer squash will work (think zucchini, crookneck, yellow, pattypan), but the long, straight ones are easier to work with. Smaller squash will have thinner skins and fewer seeds. If you truly miss the carbs, you can mix the zoodles with thick spaghetti or bucatini.

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As long as you stick to greens/nuts/cheese/oil ratios, you can interchange ingredients with abandon when making pesto. I used a mix of lemon basil, Genovese basil and beet greens here. But arugula, parsley, radish tops, spinach or blanched kale can be used, about two cups total, in whichever combination you fancy. Use the freshest greens you can find, and you'll be rewarded with a Kermit-green pesto and a big boost of chlorophyll.

Sunflower seeds can be swapped for the (expensive) pine nuts, as can walnuts or almonds. Quick toasting in the oven or skillet will make a big difference to the flavor of your pesto, regardless of your choice. You can skip nuts/seeds altogether and add more cheese instead, or skip the cheese and double down on the nuts. Parmesan is traditional, but any hard cheese (Romano, Asiago, Manchego, aged Gouda) can be substituted. I always make extra, pressing plastic wrap onto the surface to minimize oxidation so I can store them in the fridge for a few days. It's sensational on grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches or used as a pizza sauce.

Perhaps you can find a friend growing squash and save them from sneaking onto your porch. Then have fun with your kids conjuring this delightful summer dinner.


Pesto

2 cups tightly packed herbs and/or greens, stems removed (basil, parsley, arugula, beet greens, Swiss chard, radish tops or blanched kale)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

1/3 cup toasted nuts or seeds (pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, or sunflower seeds)

½ cup shredded hard, salty cheese (Parmesan, Romano, aged Gouda, Manchego or Asiago)

1 garlic clove, peeled

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½ a lemon (zest and juice)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Add all ingredients except oil to food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Slowly drizzle in oil while steadily blending until emulsified.


Zoodles

4 medium summer squash, like zucchini

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Use a spiralizer or julienne the squash into long, thin "noodles." Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat then sauté garlic for about a minute, stirring so it doesn't stick. Add the squash with the seasoning and, using tongs, separate the zoodles and move around the skillet until soft but not mushy, 3-5 minutes. Drain any excess water, then toss gently with the pesto.


Homemade Ricotta

½ gallon whole milk (not UHT)

1/3 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

Heat the milk until it is just on verge of a boil, or to 200 degrees. Gently stir in the lemon juice and salt. The curds should begin to separate from the whey. If you don't see any action, add a bit more lemon juice. Let stand for 10 minutes, and then carefully pour into a strainer lined with four layers of cheesecloth and set over a large bowl. Allow to drain for 30 minutes.


Stuffed Squash Blossoms

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 bunch leafy greens (Malabar spinach, Swiss chard, spinach or kale), stems removed and roughly chopped

2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

¼ cup grated Parmesan

1 cup ricotta

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

8 squash blossoms, stamens removed

¼ cup panko bread crumbs

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the garlic for about a minute while stirring so it doesn't stick. Add the greens and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in the basil and allow to cool. In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta and Parmesan with the greens mixture and give a few grinds each of salt and pepper. Place filling in a plastic bag and snip off a corner, then squeeze to fill the squash blossoms, about ¾ full. Twist the tops of the flowers to close and place on an oiled baking sheet. Brush the tops of the blossoms with the remaining oil, and sprinkle the bread crumbs on top. Bake for 12 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs start to brown.

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