The zucchini chronicles

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This is only one day’s harvest!

(…or the courgette chronicles, for our English audience.) By now we’re likely all familiar with the time-honored adage about how rural residents only lock their cars in July and August, because that’s when a fiendish neighbor is most likely to deposit a bag of overgrown and unwanted zucchini on the passenger seat. It’s an apt joke, however; anyone who has grown summer squash knows that it absolutely has a mind of its own. One day, there are tiny flowers on the plant; not even twenty-four hours later, it seems, zucchini the size of baseball bats have taken over the garden. If not carefully monitored, these plants can become unmanageable very quickly.

Squash 01 sml

Please, someone, tell me what’s wrong with this zucchini plant?

I always think of zucchini (like my beloved kale) as a self-esteem boost for the gardener. It grows well in just about any conditions, needs little care and produces voluminously and reliably. Interestingly, this is the first season I’ve struggled with zucchini – of seven plants, four look like the photo above: small and stunted with initially green leaves that turn crisp and brown without growing larger. The plant keeps putting on new leaves, which promptly die; no blossoms or fruit appear. All of the seven plants are from the same seed and in the same bed and none are planted where squash grew last year; I’ve never seen anything like this. Are they diseased? Attacked by a mysterious pest? Why are three plants growing perfectly? If any experienced gardeners want to weigh in on this unexpected quandary, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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You can pickle that

Are you swimming in zucchini and other summer squashes right now? We are, and grateful for it; if not for squash and kale and basil, I wouldn’t have grown much of anything this season. But what to do with all that zucchini, once you’ve grilled it in thick slices and tossed it with pasta and made overly-sweet not-at-all-healthy zucchini bread and so on? Those plants keep producing, even the surprise volunteers that showed up in the potato towers and the compost pile. Well, you could pickle that.

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What to do when the zucchini are threatening to take over.

The Quiet Farm household isn’t a huge fan of traditional cucumber dill pickles. I’ve tried them all the ways over the years – even traditional barrel fermentation, which meant that I once dumped five gallons of moldy, slimy cucumbers and their brine into our overwhelmed compost pile back at our old house in Denver – and it’s never been something that we’ve loved. (One of my sacrosanct rules of preserving: only make what you’ll actually eat.) Our altitude means that canned vegetables have to be processed much longer in a boiling water bath so pickles are almost always soggy; limp, overcooked cucumbers aren’t my thing. Also, even though I adore sharp, acidic flavors, standard vinegar pickles are sometimes just…too much.

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Cooking from the garden

Friends, hello. It is early September and thus the height of the harvest season in our corner of the world. And though the tomatoes are finally, finally coming on after an unseasonably cool August, I find that I’m struggling to work up the enthusiasm I typically have during this time of abundance.

Veg Mixed

Right now seems to be a time of sadness for just about everyone. Not only are people suffering in our country and of course across the world, but closer to home friends and family are coping with grief, misfortune, illness, despair and all sorts of darkness. I struggle mightily (and often unsuccessfully) not to carry the weight of the world, so at times like these I always find myself back in the kitchen. We soldier on, doing our best; no matter what, we all need to eat.

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A habanero pepper plant after a rainstorm.

One of my biggest challenges in my cooking classes is providing clear, usable recipes, because more often than not, I don’t cook from them. I know well that everyone wants recipes – especially if you’re just starting out in the kitchen, recipes offer valuable handholding and a sense of regimented calm and comfort, a plan to follow. What I ultimately try to teach, however, is the confidence to cook without recipes – to improvise, to adjust, to have faith in the process and your own palate and that the end result might not be exactly what you planned but will still, most likely, be delicious. And summer and early fall are certainly one of the easiest times to cook without recipes, since you can let the produce guide you.

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The before and after: shishitos raw…

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…and shishitos cooked, with flaky sea salt (of course).

As for improvisational cooking from the garden: let’s talk shishitos, just for a moment. These small peppers burst onto the culinary scene some years back as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants. The tip of the pepper is thought to resemble the head of a lion, shishi in Japanese; as such, their full name is shishitogarashi but is typically shortened to shishito. They’ll eventually turn red, like most peppers if left to ripen long enough, but they’re usually harvested green, about the size of a pinky finger. No recipe needed for these: crank up the heat on a cast-iron pan, drizzle with a tiny bit of neutral oil, like canola, and toss the peppers in just until they char and soften. Serve with soy sauce and flaky salt. I leave mine pretty crunchy, but you can cook them until they collapse, too, if that’s your preference.

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Cucumbers are another summer favorite; like tomatoes, the difference between harvesting your own and buying sad, bitter supermarket versions is night and day. These little ones are theoretically designed for pickling, but to be honest I end up eating most of them raw. Thinly sliced or cut into chunks, with slivers of red onion; they’re dressed lightly with rice vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Plus, any variety of bright, fresh herbs that I might feel compelled to use. Simple, fresh, crunchy, tangy and satisfying.

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Unlike some, I am never tired of zucchini. Growing vegetables in our high-plains desert can be so challenging that I’m gratified by anything that produces so much for so little effort. Plus, zucchini is infinitely versatile, and it never goes to waste in my kitchen. Looking for an interesting spread for toast? Try this recipe from a talented Oregon farmer and home cook.

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This summer, most of my zucchini starred in this Ottolenghi classic: lightly grilled with olive oil, then layered with fresh basil, toasted hazelnuts and slivers of Parmigiano, drizzled with hazelnut oil and white balsamic. I pretty much just gave you the recipe, but if you want more specific guidance, go here.

Tomatoes Heirloom

And these beauties? Nothing more than sliced, on a plate, with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. That’s it. Growing tomatoes in Colorado – and actually having them survive until harvest – is such a labor of love that it’s a crime to do anything more.

Take care of yourselves, friends, and make something delicious and nourishing to eat. Good food matters.