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MARTHA SEZ: ‘One plant is capable of feeding a family of 10’

It is hard to believe, but it was 20 years ago when my friend Lorie gave me her recipe for zucchini crusted pizza. I wrote it down, along with the date, and stuck it between the pages of my “Joy of Cooking” cookbook, where I came across it this morning.

I used to complain bitterly in my column about tough, stringy overgrown zucchini. These squash are best picked when they are small and tender, but are often overlooked amid the deep zucchini foliage and left on the vine, where they rapidly grow to a prodigious size. Soon, I warned readers, friends and coworkers will be trying to give you these monster vegetables (or are they fruits?). Zucchini gardeners will not be easily discouraged or put off by your refusal to partake of the harvest. In August they will leave giant squashes in brown paper grocery bags inside your car or outside your back door. There is really no escape.

You won’t find this same desperate eagerness to share other garden crops, like heirloom tomatoes or asparagus. You won’t be finding grocery bags full of raspberries waiting for you on the front seat. Zucchini is different.

Zucchini plants are profligate and proliferous in squash production. One plant is capable of feeding a family of 10, if only you could get the family members to eat the squash it produces.

Many people who will happily eat almost anything else draw the line at zucchini, even though it does not have an objectionable taste, or much taste at all. They have probably been put off by being served generous helpings of past-its-peak zucchini with a texture that is either tough and fibrous or slimy and stringy from overcooking. Announcing “This zucchini is not getting older, it’s getting better!” while setting a steaming casserole on the table will not work.

Even the most zealous zucchini gardener must finally accept this and adopt other, more roundabout, methods. The commonest last-ditch effort is called zucchini bread, made with squash that has grown so tough that its rind can’t be cut with a knife, and must be grated. A sort of coffee cake, leavened with baking powder or bicarbonate of soda, zucchini bread is sweet, moist and spicy, and really not bad. The only way I can think of to improve it is to leave out the zucchini.

I still remember that day in mid August when I discovered a prodigious squash hidden under the foliage in my own garden. I would have buried it in my compost pile in order to save face, but my friend Lorie happened by just then on her way home from her job at the Keene Valley Post Office, and caught me with the zucchini in my hands.

“Making zucchini bread?” she inquired casually, batting a few hundred midges, gnats, mosquitoes and no-see-ums away from her face as she spoke.

“A little hot for that, don’t you think?” I answered, as politely as I could. It was in fact as hot and humid as a sauna in my back yard that afternoon.

Lorie then informed me that zucchini bread is not the only recipe for tough, seedy squash. At August garden parties, she said, she used to serve a dish adopted from Molly Katzen’s 1977 “Moosewood Cookbook” called zucchini crusted pizza. From her wistful smile and her tone of voice, I could tell she recalled it nostalgically. Or else the nostalgia was for those long-ago summer evenings, and the pizza had nothing to do with it.

Just in case you run across a zucchini behemoth or two–and at this time of year, it’s more than likely you will–here is the recipe.

3 1/2 cups grated zucchini 3 eggs, beaten 1/3 cup flour 1/2 cup grated grated mozzarella cheese 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese 1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves Salt and pepper Salt the grated zucchini, set it aside for 15 minutes or so, then squeeze out the excess moisture. Combine the ingredients and press into an oiled 10-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then broil briefly until golden. Add sauce and toppings and bake as for a regular pizza.

Later, my friend Vanessa told me that Lorie’s zucchini pizza crust is actually a frittata, an Italian omelet. A traditional Italian frittata may be made with plain sauteed zucchini or sauteed zucchini with tomato and basil. So you see, there is more than one way to cook a cucurbit.

Have a good week.