Sunday, July 30, 2006

Gad-Zukes!

Though it's true that every summer I look forward to each crop coming into its own, there's one crop that tends to bring to mind (for most people, though not usually me) visions of B horror movies, ominous music, and underhanded schemes by gardeners or farmers wishing to rid themselves of the inevitable surplus.

Yes, you know what I'm talking about: zucchini.

Now, wait just a minute. Don't run off screaming in terror. If all you can think when the word zucchini is mentioned is giant baseball bat or billy club sized squash appearing on your doorstep in the middle of the night, then you'd better think again.

While it's easy to let zucchini get away from you in the garden and not reappear until they're oversized, the careful eye can spot the smaller squash and pick them at the height of their tenderness (say, no more than 6 to 8" long). At this stage, a small zucchini, sliced and sauteed in olive oil with some fresh garlic and seasoned with black pepper and Parmesan cheese, can result in simple garden-fresh culinary bliss. (I've been known to make a dinner solely on that.)

If, however, you do find yourself in possession of one of the overgrown monsters (known to some as bazucchini; think about it), you still have a few options. You can slice it, dredge the slices in egg and then a cornmeal or bread crumb breading, and fry the slices. You can cut it into long lengthwise slices that then become the "noodles" in a pan of vegetable lasagna. Or you can shred it and use it in an infinite variety of ways, both sweet and savory.

I'll often pick up larger zucchini on purpose just to shred and freeze the squash in clumps for later use in bread, cake, or even one of my favorite quick meals, zucchini-feta pancakes. So when the Original Organic Farmer offered "a free zucchini with every purchase" at yesterday's market, I snagged a good sized one with the idea of making a batch of muffins for the week, saving the remains of the shreds in the freezer for later.

Though for zucchini bread I like to use the classic recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook, I'm always on the lookout for a new muffin recipe. I found a recipe for Carrot Date Muffins (from Yeast West Bakery in Buffalo, NY) in my Uprisings cookbook and decided to modify it for the zucchini.

And wouldn't you know it, that recipe also gave me plenty of opportunity to use lots of local foods: the zucchini, the dates my parents bought at the date farm in California last year, locally milled oats and whole wheat flour, local honey and maple syrup for sweeteners, local eggs, pecans from my trip to the Springfield farmers' market, and dry milk from a local farm a little farther afield. Between the good blend of flavors and just a hint of sweetness in the muffins and the satisfaction of being able to use so many local ingredients, I had a thoroughly enjoyable breakfast this morning.


Of course, I still have a smaller zucchini in the fridge that may end up sauteed later this week, and another medium-sized one that might become part of a pasta salad or some other delight. It's still early in the season, and I've no doubt that by the time summer is over, I'll have had my fill of zucchini.

But for now, I still say, "Bring it on!"


Zucchini Date Muffins

The mild... bland, some might say... flavor and texture of zucchini makes it well suited for use in almost any baked good, as long as you press the excess water from the shredded squash. It takes on the flavor of the spices used and adds a colorful and nutritious boost to your morning pastries. While there are plenty of good zucchini recipes around, I like this version of Carrot Date Muffins from Uprisings and find it fairly quick to throw together. If you make this recipe during hot weather, store the baked muffins in the refrigerator or share with friends, because the moisture in the zucchini draws mold within three days. You can also fill muffin cup liners with dough, freeze a pan full of dough-filled tins, and then store the frozen raw muffins in a freezer bag to bake off later (just pop them back into a tin and bake at 350 F, checking at 30 minutes and onward to test for doneness).

1/4 c water
1/4 c chopped, pitted dates
1/4 c rolled oats
1 c grated zucchini
1/3 c canola oil
2 T honey
2 T maple syrup
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c chopped pecans
1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Dash nutmeg
2 T powdered milk

Streusel:
1/2 c chopped pecans
1 T maple sugar
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 T melted butter or oil

Soak water, dates, and oats in a large bowl while you grate the zucchini. Then add zucchini, oil, honey, maple syrup, and eggs, beating until well-blended. Fold in pecans.

In smaller bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, spices, and powdered milk. Add to wet ingredients in two batches, blending well. Spoon batter into oiled or lined muffin tins.

Combine dry ingredients for streusel, then add melted butter and toss ingredients together with your fingers. Sprinkle streusel on top of muffins.

Bake muffins at 350 F for 20 minutes, testing for doneness. Cool on wire racks. Keeps only a couple of days at room temperature.

Makes 12-18 muffins (mine are usually modestly sized)

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