What’s so funny about zucchini? Maybe the name, which is plural, and means “little squash.” Zucchini can be too plural at times. Grow more than one plant and you may soon have these summer squash piling up on the counter, more than you can eat. And they are not “little” unless you check for them nearly every day. The enormous leaves, on long, thick, arching stems, are natural solar panels, pumping energy into fast-developing fruit.
Because zucchini are green-striped cylinders that look a lot like the stems that bear them, it’s easy to miss what happens next. Growing quietly enormous under the cover of those leaves, their color darkening in the shadows, you discover them only after they are too big to miss, and, in most cases, too big to eat.
Plant zucchini in September or October; it will go from seed to fruit in 60 days. Plant in well-drained soil that has been enriched with compost. Squash are susceptible to mildew, a problem with South Florida’s humid nights, so choose mildew-resistant varieties.
It’s not that they taste bad when torpedo-size, or even that they lose their tenderness. It’s that their bulk is 95 percent water. You could hollow them out and stuff them, but that would make them unwieldy to serve.
Here are some suggestions for zucchini management. First, practice a little birth control by picking some of the delicious flowers, stuffing them with your favorite cheese and frying them up as fritters. Choose the female blossoms, the ones with the tiny bump of early pregnancy at the base of the blossom.
Come up with enough great ways to cook them that you’ll be more motivated to pick them daily. I love them steamed with onions and tossed with butter and herbs; zucchini, with their mild flavor, are a great background for assertive summer herbs such as tarragon, basil and sage.
Bright edible flowers such as calendula, nasturtium and even lavender florets are fine additions, too. I’ve never found the oft-touted zucchini bread very interesting, but a creamy zucchini soup — maybe with some snap beans and corn-off-the-cob added — makes a good light lunch. Steam the fruits whole, quarter them lengthwise, drizzle them with an olive oil and lemon dressing and serve them over soft butterhead lettuce.
If all else fails to check their stealthy growth, try squash of a different color next year. Yellow crooknecks are easy to spot, and there are yellow varieties of zucchini as well. I’ve grown one called Zephyr that is two-toned — light green with a yellow tip. They look beautiful on a plate when picked tiny, then steamed whole. Maybe sprinkle them with chopped mint.
Picked tiny? Easy to say. But another way to deal with zucchini overload is simple acceptance. Put the big green monsters on the compost pile as high-nitrogen fuel to help your heap cook.
Too many? Take them to a food pantry or soup kitchen. Start a gleaning group in your neighborhood that will pick up extra tomatoes, cukes, eggplants and other garden overflow and get it to hungry people. Their number is also great, and that is not funny.
Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.