Boo-chini

Let’s face it: Nobody likes zucchini (Waits for the inevitable one-in-10,000 response of “No, I do, I really do.”).

Great, that’s out of the way. The question is why so many people grow the damned stuff when, statistically speaking, a 1:10,000 ratio means six people in Rutland County and 62 in all of Vermont actually enjoy it. Don’t believe me? Then explain why an enthusiastic gardener who really, really likes you might occasionally give you a homegrown tomato, but everybody with a patch of loam and a greenish thumb is desperate to give away zucchini.

The reason so many people plant and harvest it is that it is easy to grow, up there with burdock, dandelions and spider plants. And it’s every bit as tasty. The boys brought home a squash plant (a close cousin of the zucchini) last year from a Friday Night Live giveaway and it took over an entire 8-by-8 foot garden bed. When it came up again this year, I think my wife declared it a weed and pulled it. And this year we got carrot seeds from the kids’ museum instead. But if your garden isn’t producing much else, zucchini is a great morale-booster: “My garden? It’s great … we got three pea pods, two tomatoes the bugs and the blight missed, a meal of slightly rusty string beans … but 73 pounds of zucchini! Woo-hoo!”

Zucchini is also good for you. It has to be, given that healthy eaters gorge on the stuff despite the fact it has a bland, wheatgrass-gone-stale taste, is pretty much useless raw and has the cooked consistency of earthworm tartare. I swear you could put cold, cooked zucchini into a bag at a Halloween party for first-graders, have them reach in and feel it sight unseen and their guesses as to what it is would gross you out completely. It’s a vegetable out of season. If Halloween came in midsummer, pranksters would leave burning bags of boiled zucchini on doorsteps.

The secret is to disguise zucchini-like foods, starting with the marketing. Farmers and greengrocers know this trick. Take kiwi fruit, originally called Chinese gooseberry and hardly saleable until somebody came up with the new name for the little, prickly things and suddenly they’re everywhere. Similarly, “spaghetti squash” sounds good. The difference is that kiwi fruit tastes great and “spaghetti squash” is really just yellow zucchini. Blecch.

One of the more pernicious tricks is to deep-fry it, on the grounds that nothing deep-fried can be all bad. Deep-fried zucchini proves this axiom, because there’s almost never anything wrong with the breading, dipped in ranch dressing. This, zucchini fans, is called damning with faint praise.

But I’ve prevaricated long enough; in this dalliance there is a point, and the point is to tell you how to sneak zucchini past picnic guests and family members so they won’t hate you.

Here’s what usually works for me:

Grilled veggie salad

 2-3 squashy things, preferably in different colors

2 purple onions

1 leek

Half a dozen cloves of garlic, unpeeled

2 or 3 big, fresh tomatoes or a horde of little ones

1-2 each red and green peppers

Sharp, firm cheese: cheddar, feta, asiago, parmesan or similar (not from a shaker)

Olive oil

Fresh basil, plus oregano, dill, tarragon … whatever’s in the garden

Apple cider or red wine vinegar.

Salt, pepper, and honey to taste.

 The secret to grilling vegetables is that you should put little if any oil on them. Preheat the grill on high; scrape the grill well to remove cooties (I use a scraper and a wire brush). Then use a wad of paper towel with a couple of tablespoons of oil on it. The oil sticks to the grill and seasons the bars, like a cast-iron frying pan, and the paper towel gets off any loose bits you don’t want in your food. You might have to do it a couple of times at first, and you can always test the grill with something disposable, like a slice of zucchini, to see if it sticks. If so, you can very, very lightly brush a little oil on the veggies, but you don’t want so much that it flares up and leaves a smoky residue on the food.

Cut your veggies in biggish chunks: Slice the zucchini on an angle about a half-inch or a little thicker: quarter the peppers, slice the onion crossways (leaving intact rings) half to three-quarters of an inch thick. Split the leek vertically and wash the folds in plenty of cold running water to get the grit out. Tomatoes can be grilled (cut out the crown first but otherwise leave them whole) or if they’re very ripe, cut and added raw.

Grill the veggies, turning them as little as you can get away with. They’ll stick less and you’ll lose fewer bits that way. Use as high a heat as you can manage. You want nice, contrasty grill marks and the veggies to be soft but not mushy. Season the veggies on the grill or immediately after with a very little salt and pepper, steak spice or Old Bay. You want the seasoning to penetrate the hot food but underseason because you’ll be adding dressing.

Grill the garlic in its jacket, then when it’s cooled a bit, you can peel or squeeze out the edible bits and discard the papery outer. You can mash the garlic and toss it into the salad or if it’s fairly firm, blend it into in the dressing.

Toss the zucchini, onion and peppers gently in a large bowl, add the sliced tomato. Coarse-chop the grilled leek and add, along with the mashed garlic.

You can serve warm or store a couple of days in the fridge.

 For the dressing, mix 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar in a blender or food processor. I like the local cider vinegar, but any vinegar will do except balsamic, which will turn your veggies dark. Three-fourths of a cup of oil will give you some leftover dressing unless your guests are really trying to hide the taste of the zucchini. Add a biggish handful of fresh basil leaves (What’s a biggish handful? I dunno. Half a bunch? 3/4 cup loosely chopped? Lots. Nobody has ever complained about too much basil in this recipe). Blend and season to taste with salt, pepper and, if you like, a teaspoon of local honey or (shudder) sugar. It’s done right when you taste it and want to drink it out of the bottle. It should be tangy, birght green, just a hint of sweet/salt, more than a hint of pepper and a hit you over the head with the smell and taste of the basil.

Before serving, pour half the dressing over the veggies and toss gently. Sprinkle with chopped herbs and coarse-shredded cheese. Optional garnishes include pitted kalamata olives, shredded sundried tomatoes, shaved raw onion … anything with a big flavor. Grilled corn, scraped off the cob, can add a sweet touch. If the veggies are not grilled too dark, a gentle sprinkle with balsamic vinegar at this point adds contrast, but don’t overdo it.

Serve the remaining basil dressing on the side.

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