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Groundwork: Gad Zukes

Zucchini Fritters are one way to use the garden's bounty. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Zucchini is Italian for "little squash." We don't know the Italian for, "Are you kidding me?"

Zucchini hides beneath its clump of broad leaves and has the capacity to grow with frightening speed. Neglected in August for a few days, it is anything but little. Allowed to grow longer than 12 inches, it could double as a truncheon.

Recipe Included

The second dilemma for the gardener is the sheer bounty of zucchini. Four plants is all an average family would need -- something to remember when you tear open that seed packet in May and see 35 of them inside. Still, it is churlish to complain about fruit that is so generous. The key to zucchini cultivation is to check the plants every other day once harvest begins, and to take the fruit before it gets much beyond eight inches.

There are other ways to reduce the zucchini deluge. One is to take the fruits when they are just past baby stage. The other is to pick the flowers for the table. Zucchini and other summer squashes set both male and female flowers on the same plant. Both make tasty blossom fritters but, naturally, only taking the female flowers will reduce the fruit set. Our colleague Barbara Damrosch wrote about cooking blossoms last year.

The female flowers are most easily identified by the pea-size swelling at their base. Taking flowers for fritters is an early-morning endeavor because you want them when they are open. They furl up by 11 a.m.

The Costata Romanesco, with its distinctive ridges. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

At the demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, Cindy Brown and her team are harvesting Costata Romanesco, a type characterized by pronounced ridges, which give zucchini slices a starlike quality.

Cindy likes this variety, though her favorite summer squashes are the entirely different pattypan types, which never seem to expand with the alacrity of the long zukes and retain an especially sweet flavor. She also likes kabocha varieties, but those are of the vining winter squashes. We'll drool over those in September.

This year's cool and wet spring sowing season for squashes resulted in a lot of setbacks. The seeds need some moisture to germinate, but leave them in sodden soil and they will rot. Cindy gave up the pattypan this year after several false starts. Another problem in wet years is that bees can't get out to pollinate the flowers and fruit set is much reduced.

The good news is that the eventual heat and sunshine of a halting summer have given the garden an amazing boost. In the past week alone, plants that were barely visible are lush and verdant, especially the black-eyed peas, the okra and the winter squash vines.
The crew has harvested the beets and pulled the underperforming bush beans. In their place, a medley of Asian greens has been seeded, which will mature in their favored cooler days of fall.

The acorn squash vines have begun to wander out of their bed and into the paths -- not the best tactic in a public garden. So the Green Spring gardeners have gingerly picked up the errant vines, repositioned them in the bed and given the vines a general top dressing of compost to settle them after the disturbance. The compost will encourage the vines to send down more roots, bringing more moisture and nutrients into these wondrous plants. We sometimes curse them when they grow sick and we assail them when they become too bountiful. But the truth is, the summer garden would be empty without them. As would the kitchen. Cue Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: I am always happy when my zucchini vines begin to produce abundantly, because zucchini is so versatile. The orb variety can be featured in every course of a dinner, from appetizer to dessert. I have a tough time getting my family to eat zucchini as a plain side dish, but they adore it in fritters. They snatch them hot out of the pan, sprinkle them with salt and impatiently wait for more. My son created a zucchini tower with the fritters I cooked for dinner last night. He layered the fritters between slices of tomato and grilled chicken, then topped the creation with a dollop of Greek-style yogurt.

If your family finds these fritters are too green, reduce the amount of zucchini – just until they are hooked on the taste. Serve with maple syrup for a special summertime breakfast.

Zucchini Fritters

Makes twenty 3-inch fritters

Serve with sour cream, Greek-style yogurt or, as a special summertime breakfast, with maple syrup.

3 large eggs
1/2 cup flour
3 ounces good-quality feta cheese, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 1 or 2 stems mint, finely chopped (2 tablespoons)
2 dill fronds, finely chopped (1 tablespoon)
3 or 4 medium (1 1/2 pounds total) zucchini
1 medium sweet onion, minced (3/4 to 1 cup)
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil, for frying
Flaked sea salt, for sprinkling (optional)

Whisk the eggs in a large mixing bowl until well blended, then add the flour, feta cheese, pepper to taste, the mint and dill. Mix until just incorporated.

Use a hand-held grater or shredding disk on a food processor to grate the zucchini (yield: about 4 cups). Transfer to several layers of paper towels and roll up like a burrito. Wrap the roll in a clean dish towel and hold over the sink, twisting the ends in opposite directions to squeeze out as much moisture as possible.

Add the zucchini to the bowl, along with the onion. Mix well.

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. When it is hot, add just enough of the oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Line a baking sheet with several layers of paper towels and place a wire cooling rack on top.

Working in batches, scoop dollops of the zucchini mixture (2 to 3 tablespoons each) and carefully drop into the hot oil. Use a spatula to flatten each portion slightly. Fry for about 3 minutes until the bottoms turn golden brown, then turn over the fritters and fry for about 2 minutes or until the second sides are golden brown. Transfer to the wire rack and sprinkle lightly with salt, if desired.

Repeat to use all of the remaining zucchini mixture, adding oil between cooking sessions as needed and letting it heat until it shimmers. Discard any stray bits of the fritters in the hot oil as you work.

Serve immediately or keep the fritters warm in a 180-degree oven.

Per 2-fritter serving: 124 calories, 5 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 71 mg cholesterol, 124 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  August 17, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, recipes, zucchini  
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