Now I am going to try to write about what seems at first glance to be the most boring vegetable to come to the summer table: zucchini. Why do we like it? Why do we plant it? Every year gardens yield too much of it, and every year we wonder what the hell to do with it. What’s up with that? You plant zucchini; you get zucchini, not carrots or Brussels sprouts. That’s not rocket science! So why do we do it?
Slender zucchini is not so difficult to love when you get right down to it. Provided it is picked before it reaches gargantuan proportions, a zucchini has a mild, creamy interior and a skin that does not require fussy peeling. You can cut long, paper-thin slices of it, drape them on a plate and eat them raw, doused with good olive oil and flaky sea salt, or steep chunks in lemon and garlic and grill them on skewers, or roast it, or stuff it or sauté it in butter infused with bay leaves or rosemary. Grated zucchini can go in a cake or a muffin, too. There’s seems to be no end to what you can do with it.
Maybe that’s the problem: there’s so much of it, and so many choices, we just plain take it for granted. Yeah, sure, there’s a glut of zucchini now, but nothing lasts forever.
In a few months you will look back and kick yourself for kvetching about its overabundance, because it will be gone. Over. Along with the tomatoes, peaches, basil, corn, and so many things that make life worth living. When crisp mornings replace the sticky heat of August, will you be looking back in regret? I am trying to learn how to be content with what is. And right now, for the next few weeks, it is zucchini. Now is the time to seize the day, to make some fresh tomato sauce and some cheesy, colorful zucchini cakes. I say, go for it.
This sauce recipe makes a bit more than you will need (extra sauce is easy to use in soup or tossed with pasta.) The zucchini cakes recipe yields just enough to provide four people with a light lunch with the sauce, but you could easily double the amount if you want to make a more substantial vegetarian supper. Shore up the sauce with more vegetables, like leftover cut corn, and serve with brown rice.
I tried skipping the step of salting and squeezing moisture from the zucchini. It worked, sort of. The mixture was gloppy and hard to manage, so I strongly suggest you take the extra 15 minutes to do it. Obviously you could make the cakes and serve them on their own without the sauce (less work) or make a quick marinara sauce with canned tomatoes: (Pour a large (28-ounce) can of San Marzano tomatoes into a bowl and break them up with your hands. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a large deep skillet. Add a clove or two of thinly sliced garlic and set the pan over medium heat. Cook just until the garlic starts to sizzle, about 45 seconds. Add the tomatoes to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes, then add the lima beans, and cook until tender.)
Golden zucchini cakes with fresh tomato sauce
Makes 8 3-inch cakes with sauce
FRESH TOMATO SAUCE
Makes about 5 cups
3 pounds plum tomatoes, cored, with a shallow “x” cut at the tip
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 cups shelled baby lima beans, fresh or frozen
12 fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces.
1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Set a large heatproof bowl and a colander in the sink.
2. Place the tomatoes in the bowl. Cover with boiling water. Let stand for 30 to 45 seconds, or until the skins loosen. With a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the colander. Peel off and discard the tomato skins.
3. Set a strainer over a bowl. Halve the tomatoes crosswise. Hold the tomatoes over the strainer and squeeze to pop out the seeds. With a spoon, press on the seeds to extract the juice. Discard the seeds and reserve the juice. Coarsely chop the tomatoes.
4. Pour the olive oil into a large pot and set it over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper flakes. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes soften. With a potato masher, break up the tomatoes.
5. Add the lima beans, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the beans are tender. (Total cooking time is 30 minutes.) Add reserved tomato juice as needed to thin the sauce. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and red pepper, if you like. Stir in the basil.
GOLDEN ZUCCHINI CAKES
Makes 8 3-inch cakes
1 large zucchini (1 pound)
1 yellow summer squash (8 ounces)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 large carrot, coarsely grated
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Black pepper, to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
3/4 cup (about 2.5 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Have on a hand a baking sheet.
2. Coarsely grate the zucchini and yellow squash. You should have about 6 cups. In a large bowl, toss the zucchini, yellow squash, and salt together. Set a strainer over a bowl and transfer the squash to the strainer. Let stand to drain for about 10 minutes. Press out excess moisture with the back of a ladle. Spread on a dish towel and roll up the towel. Gather the ends and twist in opposite directions to squeeze out even more moisture.
3. Combine the squash, carrot, onions, parsley, pepper, egg, panko and Parmesan in a bowl. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if you like.
4. Scoop about 1/4 cup of the mixture (use ice cream scoop if you have one) and form into 8 3-inch cakes.
5. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Cook the patties in the skillet in batches if necessary for 2 to 3 minutes on a side, or until they are golden. Transfer to the baking sheet and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.
6. Ladle some tomato sauce on each plate. Set 2 patties on top of the sauce, and serve.