Cooking Class: The green chameleon

Zucchini, one of the most versatile vegetables, can be prepared in many different ways and replace other, more expensive ingredients.

zuccini 311 MCT (photo credit: MCT)
zuccini 311 MCT
(photo credit: MCT)
At a small deli in south Tel Aviv I enjoyed a vegetarian chopped liver sandwich and asked the vendor what it was made of. To my surprise he answered that it was made from summer squash. The savory filling gained flavor from plenty of sautéed onions as well as chopped hard boiled eggs and a generous amount of seasoning. Indeed, summer squash, which includes zucchini and the Israeli kishu (known to English speakers as white squash, Mexican squash, clarita squash and courgette), is used to imitate different foods. Zucchini shows up in all sorts of surprising roles. Some blend roasted zucchini with onions to make a dip resembling guacamole, instead of using avocado.
An innovative chef at the cooking school where I studied in Paris made tasty, light-textured mayonnaise. His secret ingredient was thick zucchini puree, which he used instead of the egg yolks. In Paris I also had zucchini cut into noodles and tossed with fettuccine to give an illusion of white and green noodles and create a lower-calorie dish.
Even more of a departure from the ordinary was the way they were served at a raw food booth at a vegetarian festival I attended last year in Long Beach, California. The booth had a sign that they were serving pasta and I was curious as to how the chef made it, since obviously noodles can’t be eaten raw. They simply made their noodles from finely cut zucchini and tossed them with a savory tomato mushroom sauce. It was summertime and the light, gluten-free dish was perfect; besides, making it doesn’t heat up the kitchen.
To make zucchini into noodles, many use a spiral cutter or mandoline slicer to get thin, even strips. Other use a vegetable peeler to create long ribbons of zucchini.
Kathleen Desmond Stang, author of Zucchini, Pumpkins, & Squash, makes summer squash lasagna, substituting salted rinsed dried slices of squash for the lasagna noodles.
She bakes the squash in layers with tomato mushroom sauce, ricotta spinach filling, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan.
A popular way to use zucchini among American gardeners is as mock crab cakes.
They are kosher except for their name, and are prepared by the same method as the original – the zucchini is mixed with eggs, bread crumbs, mayonnaise and seasoning, formed into patties and browned in oil and butter. To me they don’t taste much like seafood but they do taste good.
In India people use zucchini even to make mock meatballs. Madhur Jaffrey, author of World of the East Vegetarian Cookbook, mixes grated zucchini with minced hot chili, onion, fresh ginger, fresh coriander and chickpea flour and fries the mixture in balls. She then briefly simmers these “meatballs” in a creamy tomato sauce flavored with lightly browned onions, turmeric, cayenne, cumin, ground coriander and other spices. Sometimes zucchini stars in a dish normally made with eggplant. Turkish cooks substitute zucchini in imam bayildi, the famous eggplant dish cooked with onions, olive oil and tomato.
In Eastern Mediterranean lands moussaka is sometimes made from zucchini. The result is lighter and faster to prepare because zucchini needs less oil and cooks more quickly than eggplant. Americans use zucchini on the sweet side of the menu, where it can masquerade as apples. The vegetable is made into mock apple pie, imitation apple crumble and pretend apple crisp. The trick is in the spice the peeled zucchini is mixed or cooked with – cinnamon or other sweet spices. When it’s covered with pastry or with crumble topping, it’s hard to tell that the filling, which becomes brownish during baking, actually was made from a squash. With the current trend of hiding vegetables in foods that kids love, people like to stir a little grated zucchini into cookie or brownie batters.
But many cooks don’t feel a need to conceal their squash.
My neighbor was always delighted to have oversize squash from my garden to make her zucchini cake. It’s made the same way as carrot cake and many apple cakes with an oil-enriched batter and sweet spices. Sylvia Thompson, author of The Kitchen Garden Cookbook, puts almost half a kilo (a pound) of grated zucchini in a single loaf of her tasty quick nut bread, which is lightly sweetened and flavored with orange juice, walnut oil and toasted walnuts.
A popular Indian sweet, halwa, is sometimes made with various kinds of squash.
Jaffrey makes it by cooking the grated zucchini in milk with cardamom pods.
She adds sugar and a little oil and finishes the sweet with raisins and pistachios.
For a dessert, it’s fairly low in fat as well as carbs. I have enjoyed this sweet and marveled at how such a tasty dessert can be made from a squash.
ZUCCHINI PESTO Makes 4 servings Lighter than classic Italian pesto, this zesty basil-flavored zucchini puree is enriched with just a little olive oil and has a deep green color. It can be served topped with hard-boiled or fried eggs or with croutons. Zucchini puree also makes a lovely accompaniment for grilled fish or chicken, as well as rice or pasta. You can keep the puree, covered, for 1 or 2 days in the refrigerator.
✔ 700 gr. small zucchini, unpeeled ✔ 1⁄3 cup fresh basil leaves ✔ 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ 2 medium-size garlic cloves, minced ✔ Pinch of cayenne pepper Cook whole zucchini in a saucepan of boiling salted water to generously cover them for 10 minutes, or until they are tender enough to be easily pureed. Cut in 2.5- cm pieces, crush them very lightly with spoon, and drain very thoroughly in colander about 15 minutes.
In a medium skillet, heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Add garlic, and cook for 30 seconds over low heat. Add zucchini and cook over medium heat, stirring, about 5 minutes.
Puree mixture in food processor together with basil. With motor running, add remaining olive oil. Shortly before serving, reheat puree gently in saucepan.
If it is too thin, cook over medium heat, stirring, until thickened. Add salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. Serve hot or warm.
ZUCCHINI HALWA Makes 4 servings This recipe is from World of the East Vegetarian Cookbook. Madhur Jaffrey writes: “Halwa is an Arabic word but the art of making it has spread all the way from the Mediterranean Sea to the Bay of Bengal.
Among the most delicate of halwas are those made from vegetables. Here is one that I have adapted from the green bottle gourd. For all of you with over productive zucchini patches, this is one more thing that you can do with that vegetable in the summer. Note: Use a heavy pot with an even distribution of heat. I find cast-aluminum pots excellent.” Indian cooks generally use whole milk to make this sweet.
✔ 4 smallish zucchini (slightly over 454 gr.) or white squash (kishuim) ✔ 2 cups milk ✔ 5 cardamom pods ✔ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil ✔ 6 Tbsp. sugar, or to taste ✔ 1 Tbsp. golden raisins ✔ 1 Tbsp. pistachios, coarsely chopped Scrub the zucchini and trim the ends.
Grate coarsely by hand or in a food processor. Combine the grated zucchini, milk and cardamom pods in a heavy pot.
Bring to a simmer over a medium flame.
Turn the heat slightly lower and cook, stirring now and then, until almost all the milk has evaporated. Stir more frequently now and keep cooking until you cannot see any more liquid. Add the oil and sugar. Turn the heat down, if necessary, and keep frying for 10 minutes or until the halwa resembles mashed potatoes.
Add the raisins and pistachios. Stir for another minute. Serve at room temperature or cold.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.