When the zucchini come marching in -- as they do relentlessly every growing season -- it doesn't take long before the troops go on zucchini overload. So what if agriculturalists praise zucchini as a high-yield crop? They are only squash, after all, and what is a cook supposed to do with so many of them?
Years ago I found a delicious answer at a late-night dinner at the Union Square Cafe in New York. I wanted to eat something light and the waiter suggested a low-calorie pasta substitute called pappardelle of zucchini, named after the broad noodle Tuscan chefs pair with game.
It's not at all hard to turn zucchini into delicious "noodles." Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the squash into thin strips about 7 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide, the approximate dimensions of real pappardelle noodles. Then cook them in a simple fresh tomato sauce flavored with sauteed garlic and shallots, a splash of white wine, a generous pitcher of heavy cream, a sprinkling of fresh herbs and a grating of Parmesan cheese.
The key to success with this dish is to cook the zucchini strips only until they are barely limp. Once they become too soft or fall apart, they lose the surprising ability they have to deceive the eye -- and even the tooth -- into believing they really are noodles.
Whether picked fresh in your garden, fetched from a roadside stand or plucked from the supermarket produce shelf, the best zucchini are small (no more than 7 inches long), firm and have tender, glossy skin and tiny seeds.
With zucchini as plentiful as they are today, it is hard to believe that once upon a time in America only Italian groceries and French specialty shops stocked these green vegetables -- for customers feeling nostalgic for home. But even as many Americans have discovered how easy this vegetable is to grow and have even come to enjoy eating it, figuring out what to do with all the excess is an annual predicament.
Though they may be apocryphal, stories of gardeners guiltily sneaking through the night to deposit bags of zucchini on the doorsteps of neighbors, do capture the spirit of what a plague these squash can be. So this year, be a good neighbor. Prepare some pappardelle of zucchini and take it next door.
PAPPARDELLE OF ZUCCHINI
2 medium zucchini, peeled
4 fresh plum tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano, or pinch dried
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh marjoram, or pinch dried
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh basil, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons ground fresh parmigiana reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
Slice zucchini lengthwise in strips 7 inches long, 1 1/2 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick to imitate the dimensions of a pappardelle noodle. To prepare tomatoes, bring a pot of water to a boil and have an ice-water bath ready next to it. Remove the core of the tomatoes and score the bottoms with an X. Plunge tomatoes into hot water and blanch 1 minute. Immediately immerse into the ice-water bath to stop the cooking. Peel off skin, cut flesh away from seeds and dice.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic and zucchini and cook until softened without allowing them to color. Add wine and reduce until zucchini is wilted. Do not overcook zucchini. Add cream, tomatoes, oregano, marjoram and basil. Reduce 2 minutes to thicken. Toss in 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Serve in bowls and garnish with parsley and remaining cheese. Serves four as an appetizer.