• Posted by Nan Watkins on February 17th, 2009, 12:59 PM

    Looking out over our garden this February morning, I see a fallow field, a plot of bottomland at rest stretching along the bank of the Tuckasegee River. A cool breeze ruffles a few poplar and oak leaves that were plowed into the crumbling cornstalks last October. The soil is rich with horse manure that Thomas has brought down from the neighbor’s barn. Pale sunlight glistens off the river. Purple finches busy themselves searching for a few sunflower seeds overlooked in the fall. A squirrel skips by with a black walnut clenched in his jaws.

    I need to go inside now and lift the lid of our chest freezer to find something for dinner tonight. This is the time of year when we reap what we have sown—we’ve already eaten about a third of what we put up from the summer’s harvest. What form of zucchini will entice us this evening? Of all the summer vegetables, zucchini takes the prize for versatility, abundance, reliability, and sheer perseverance. How would we survive without the Great Zucchini? Before the summer is out, we have eaten every course of a meal, from appetizer and soup, salad and relish, to various entrées and side dishes, and finally dessert—all made with zucchini.

    Each summer the zucchini regime runs roughly like this: Thomas sows the heirloom seeds into the mounds he has neatly formed in the front of the garden. Slowly the first green shoots appear and the vines begin to spread. Gradually the leaves turn bold, becoming large, dark, heart-shaped cover for the fecund yellow blossoms forming underneath. It’s always a miracle to see those trumpeting flowers transformed into the slender, deep green waxen fruit. To pick the first zucchini of the season is to hold the innocence of the earth in your hand. To bring it into the kitchen and slice it into pale circlets rimmed with the greenest green and toss those tender coins into a summer salad is to know the pleasure of growing your own food.

    At the beginning of the season I’m enthusiastic and want to have zucchini in some form at every supper. On warm July evenings, I sauté slices of zucchini with garlic and sweet onions for a fresh side dish. If we let a squash grow a bit bigger,  I cut it into very thin slices, brush them with olive oil and sprinkle them with grated Parmesan before running them under the broiler.

    On a day when Thomas brings in a large bag of medium-sized zucchini, I go into soup mode, preparing a staple that will go in the freezer for winter evenings: curried zucchini soup [Note: I cut the details as I’d rather have this as an actual recipe, separate from the story…]. If it’s been a hot day, I save enough for our evening meal, serving it cold from the fridge with a dollop of sour cream. When I tire of making soup, I coarsely grate heaps of zucchini to use as the foundation for loaves of spicy bread, made hearty with whole wheat flour. These loaves, taken from the freezer months later, enliven our tea hour on winter afternoons and also serve as a simple dessert.

    When the tomatoes come in, I think of zucchini Parmesan. I slice the zucchini lengthwise into spears, braise them lightly in olive oil with garlic, add skinned tomatoes and fresh herbs at hand, and grate Parmesan over the top. This makes a good meal hot from the oven. Or I might simmer zucchini and yellow squash slices together with the tomatoes for an attractive stew, adding green peppers, garlic, onions, and herbs, all fresh from the garden. It all freezes well and can be served in winter on its own or over rice, pasta, or boiled potatoes.

    By this time I’m fantasizing about inviting friends over for a dinner consisting of nothing but zucchini-based dishes—anything to keep ahead of the harvest. Eager for some variety in a main course, Thomas takes control and sautés zucchini slices with whatever else needs to be used—carrots, green beans, peppers—into a veggie mélange. I boil up a large pot of Basmati rice and make a cream sauce, perhaps flavored with cheese. I toss everything together into pans to be frozen for a winter casserole.

    As the zucchini keeps coming, I’m turning desperate to use it all while it’s still fresh. I grate heaps of the stuff into bowls, squeeze out the excess liquid and seal the raw squash in quart freezer bags to use later in pancakes or winter soups. Some of the grated squash I turn into a surprise hit: chocolate zucchini cake. I might add black walnuts and call it brownies. In another last ditch effort, I’ve made piquant zucchini pickles that liven up even uninspired meals.

    Finally, when we are weary of this tireless vegetable that won’t quit, we peek cautiously under the drooping plants only to find bomb-sized versions that had escaped our notice in the days before when we were knee-deep in green beans and corn. Our local farmer’s market has found the final solution for such prizes: the catapult. Bring your zuke bombs to market and enter the contest to see whose missile can do the most damage when launched from a massive wooden catapult.

    Those summer days bring lots of memories this February morning as I contemplate what to make for dinner. Storm clouds are gathering over the mountain—it feels like a day for zucchini rice casserole. I’ll bring out some of Thomas’s famous tomato soup, still snoozing in the freezer, too. And maybe some green beans tossed with pecans on the side. The soup and casserole will defrost on the top of the woodstove while the beans simmer on the kitchen range. So the Great Zucchini will give us yet another good meal. What bliss, on a winter’s day, to enjoy the fruits of our labor on those long, sunlit summer afternoons!

    Nan Watkins enjoys the good life of reading, writing, music, and travel, all fueled by lots of fresh veggies and fruit. Her home base is Tuckasegee, North Carolina.

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