Real Food Encyclopedia | Zucchini and Summer Squash

Among the favorite summer goodies are zucchini and other members of the summer squash family. The zucchino (singular form of the Italian word “zucchini”) is part of the extensive Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumberwatermelon and winter squash. In fact, both the winter and summer squash gangs belong to the same genus — Cucurbita pepo — an additional layer of botanical intimacy that defies physical appearance. What’s considered summer squash — zucchini, crookneck, straightneck and pattypan — is essentially the immature, tender-skinned and diminutive versions of their more durable, tough-skinned siblings such as butternut, hubbard and acorn.

Don’t let the word zucchini fool you into thinking summer squash got its start in Italy. In fact, along with its C. pepo brethren, zucchini is a native of the Americas, and an ancient one at that. Archeologists have located seeds in Mexican caves that suggest that C. pepo was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago.

Before Christopher Columbus brought squash seeds to Europe, the summer plants were (and are still) known in the Americas as calabacitas, the diminutive of calabaza (the generic word for squash). Once in Europe, the Italians coined the big-boned relatives as zucca and its more petite kin as zucchini. In France, it became known as courge and courgette, which is how they’re referred to in the UK. Not until the 1920s did zucchini return to this side of the pond, thanks to Italian immigrants.

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Fun Facts about Zucchini and Summer Squash:

  • There are two Guinness World Records for zucchini: British gardener Bernard Lavery has remained the heavyweight champ since 1990 when he presented his 64 1/2 – pound zucchini.
  • For length strength, the record was set in 2014 by Giovanni Batista Scozzafava of Niagara Falls, Canada for his 8 feet, 3.3 inch-long garden monstrosity.

What to Look for When Buying Zucchini and Summer Squash

Leave the dull and bruised zucchini behind (it means they’re one step away from compost). Although tempting, the overgrown zucchini you see for a dollar at the farmers’ market are better left behind as well; they will be woody and tough.

Sustainability of Zucchini and Summer Squash

According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, zucchini and other summer squash rank 28 out of 48, putting it somewhere in the middle of the pesticide load road. Summer squash deals with a fair share of insects as well as a powdery mildew, a temptation for conventional growers to spray crops.

Of more pressing concern is zucchini’s place at the GMO table. The Non-GMO Project lists zucchini and summer squash as a high-risk; there are two genetically modified varieties, resistant to certain viruses that affect squash, in commercial production in the US. In the absence of GMO labeling laws, consumers are in the dark when buying zucchini in the conventional marketplace. If GMO issues are a concern, we recommend purchasing zucchini as locally as possible from growers at farmers markets, farm stands and through CSA programs and asking questions about growing practices.

Zucchini and Summer Squash Seasonality

Zucchini and other summer squash are available from the summer through the fall. Because of its high water content (95 percent), zucchini is highly perishable. Its fragile state does not bode well for off-season imports (mostly from Central America). Another reason to eat from your foodshed.

Eating Zucchini and Summer Squash

Storing Zucchini and Summer Squash

Keep zucchini refrigerated until ready to use; wrap in paper instead of plastic, which creates moisture). Zucchini should be used within two or three days of purchase. Zucchini do not age well; they get mushy, moldy or both.

Cooking with Zucchini and Summer Squash

In case you hadn’t noticed, zucchini and other summer squash are mild. This means, zucchini plays nicely with — garlic, tomatoes, leafy herbs, olives, roasted peppers, onions and various cheeses, for starters. It also has the virtue of versatility. Zucchini can be sautéed, batter fried, stuffed, grated, grilled, pureed and roasted.

Another zucchini favorite: squash blossoms. You’ll see these at the farmers’ market and when you do, snap them up. They are wonderful dredged in a light batter and fried. They make for a light, crisp and super festive snack.

Zucchini has a sweet side, too. You can swap out shredded carrot for zucchini on a loaf cake or muffins. Or add grated zucchini into a chocolate cake adds a healthy, impressive ending to a dinner party.

Preserving Zucchini and Summer Squash

Zucchini goes bad quickly. To keep it around a little longer (about three months), cut it into 1/2-inch pieces, blanch and freeze. You can also slice it into thin rounds and dehydrate zucchini, or pickle it.

Zucchini and Summer Squash Nutrition

Like its cousin, the watermelon, zucchini is super low cal — 1 cup of raw zucchini is just 18 calories. A rich source of Vitamins B-2, B-6 and C, potassium (great for blood pressure), zucchini also offers decent amounts of fiber and even a little bit of protein. Step right up for some anti-inflammatory assistance and an antioxidant pep talk to boot.