One Ingredient: Zucchini

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA/STYLED BY CATRINE KELTY

As I walked through Palermo’s Ballaro market a couple of years ago, an unfamiliar sight caught my eye. I knew about squat Sicilian eggplants, a rich shade of purple with white around the stem, the shape of large, mutant tomatoes. And I’d read about fuzzy green almonds, common as they may be to a Californian but mysterious to a kid from Massachusetts. What I didn’t know about was what the Sicilians call zucchine lunghe—literally “long zucchini”—stacked in bunches like bundles of pale green serpents or displayed upright like stalks of bamboo. They were comically, even absurdly long, unlike any zucchini I’d ever seen.

I was thrilled to be served fusilli alla crema di zucchine soon thereafter at a dinner in Catania. A light green sauce made of puréed zucchini and herbs perfectly clung to the coils of fusilli, and a sprinkling of sharp ricotta salata provided a salty counterpoint to the vibrantly colored yet delicately flavored sauce. It was one of the best preparations of zucchini I’d ever tasted, and totally new to me. Those long zucchini must have a ton of flavor, I thought. Wrong. Recipes for this dish call for zucchine genovesi, the term for the type of zucchini we are most familiar with here in the U.S. The smaller the zucchini the more flavor, I learned. Maybe those long zucchini were being sold as timber.

I don’t think it’s unfair to guess that, for most people, the most exciting thing about zucchini is that it starts with a “z.” A serious staple of summertime farmers markets, zucchini and its ilk (summer squash, zucchini blossoms) are popular but, let’s be honest, not always the most innately flavorful vegetables on offer. What they may lack in attitude, however, they make up for with outstanding versatility. There are few things you can’t do with zucchini or summer squash.

The most common variety of zucchini around here is the so-called zucchine genovesi—medium length and relatively thin with dark green skin. The standard summer squash, perhaps equally common, is long but more bulbous at one end, with pale yellow skin and a more delicate flavor than its green cousin. Once we move away from those two, things get a bit more interesting. I have a particular affinity for what are sometimes (redundantly) called kousa squash, a variety beloved across the Middle East, where they are called kousa in Arabic. In the UK (where green zucchini are called courgettes), kousa are called marrows. They have pale green skin and are usually shorter and fatter than the standard zucchini, which makes them ideal for stuffing.

A trip to the farmers market at the peak of summer will yield several heirloom varieties of summer squash—bi-colored yellow and green, small and globe-like, bulbous and twisted. They are all good. Unlike in Europe, where zucchini will usually be sold with their beautiful orange blossoms still attached, American farmers tend to sell the flowers in bunches, if at all. I’m always thrilled to see them, as they can add color and freshness to pastas and salads, or be battered and deep fried for an addictive snack.

My aim with these recipes is to offer flexible ideas for several types of zucchini, and, as always, to take cues from diverse cultures on how best to honor the raw ingredient. I grill strips of zucchini to stuff into Greek-style sandwiches, char them for salsa to accompany zucchini quesadillas, stuff them as they do in the Middle East and grate them for a vegan zucchini bread that I have daydreamed about Mary Berry (of “The Great British Bakeoff” fame) calling “most tempting.” Of course, I’ve also taken a crack at the Sicilian dish from Catania, which may be the purest and best showcase for this ubiquitous underdog of the vegetable world. Try it on a warm summer night with a glass of minerally white wine from Mount Etna, and I promise you’ll be as surprised as I was. 

LUKE PYENSON is a food and travel writer, recipe developer, food stylist and photographer based in New York City. You can see examples of his work at www.lukepyenson.com.