Zucchini. It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

| 08 Mar 2012 | 02:43

I feel bad for the zucchini. The butt of many jokes, it provides the gardener with abundance yet is derided for its prolificness. Gifts of ripe tomatoes always find a welcoming home; not so with zucchini. But there are simple ways to keep squash plants in check.

Many Asian cultures consume squash vines, simmering the tender tips and leaves in broth. What better way to prune an aggressive plant and have a nutritious meal at the same time?

Another method of restraining your squash’s over-productivity is to eat the delicious blossoms. Enjoy these nutritious delicacies while simultaneously practicing squash fertility control. To consume the blossoms and have mature squash as well, one needs to understand the plant’s anatomy and cultivation requirements. Technically a fruit, the squash develops after the blossom has been pollinated. Reducing the number of blossoms controls the number of fruit per plant.

Each plant bears male and female blossoms. In order for the plant to produce fruit, it is necessary to have a male blossom for every 10 female flowers. The male blossom appears on a long stem whereas the female has an immature fruit attached to the base of the petals.

All squash prefer a sunny location and thrive in well-drained soil enriched with rotted manure and compost. There are basically two groups of squashes: summer and winter. The former includes many varieties of zucchini, pattypan/scallop and yellow squash that come in a vast array of colors and shapes as a result of open pollination. Summer squash is best when harvested young and the skin is tender. Left unpicked, the plant will stop producing new fruit.

Winter squash, on the other hand, is usually allowed to mature on the vine and harvested when the leaves have withered and the skin is hard. The curing process continues for several days as the squash is left in the open field, protected from frost with a light cloth when needed. Unbruised winter squash stores well and is a staple for the winter diet.

This distinction between summer and winter squash is not clear when it comes to my favorite, zucchetta rampicante, which straddles the fence. This vigorous vine grows to 15 feet long and produces trombone-shaped fruit that gives it its common name, “tromboncino.” Three plants easily feed a family of four for the entire season. When the squash matures at 24 inches long, it remains remarkably tender.

Unlike other zucchinis, it has no seeds except at the bulbous end. Its flesh is firm and less watery than ordinary zucchinis. Thinly sliced, it is delicious raw as a low-caloric alternative to crackers for spreads. If tromboncino is allowed to remain on the vine until frost, its skin turns tan and its flesh becomes orange. At this stage it tastes like and resembles an elongated butternut squash. Zucchetta rampicante is a mainstay in my garden because of its resistance to the vine borer, a hidden invader that often decimates other varieties of my otherwise unstoppable squash.

Hidden invaders Squash borer’s white larvae appear at the height of summer. They chew through the vine’s hollow stem, destroying it from inside out. The adult is a ½” moth with transparent wings and orange abdomen.

• Examine the wilted stem for frass particles resembling sawdust near the borer’s hole.

• With a sharp knife, slice from this point upwards along the length of the stem.

• Bury the wound in soil. • Organic defense: cover the plant with agricultural cloth.Remove cloth when plant blooms to allow natural pollination or hand-pollinate.