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Grow a twist on a classic American dish

August 8, 2018

What could be more American than apple pie? Indeed, the phrase “as American as apple pie” goes back to at least 1860. However, like many things that make America great, apple pie is an immigrant: Apples are native to Asia, not America. And what could be more Italian than zucchini? Actually, zucchini (Cucurbita pepo) is native to the Americas, and traveled from here to Italy and back again.

So apples and zucchini are just part of the melting pot of American food. Apple trees can take years to bear fruit, whereas zucchini vines and fruits seem to grow in minutes. Growing from seed to edible squash in under 60 days, zucchini can fill bare spots in the garden even late in the season. Zucchini (Italian for little zucca or little squash) are what we informally call “summer squash.” They are picked before they really mature during the summer. Because they are actually immature, their skin is tender and fully edible, but the thin skin means they don't store like hard-skinned winter squash.

It is best to direct seed zucchini right where you want them to grow. These are fast-growing vegetables with the squash ready to pick just a week after the plant blooms. Luckily, late-season plantings grow even quicker because the ground is nice and warm. Plant them in full sun in rich, well-drained soil. Avoid soggy ground, or the roots will rot. The rapid growth means they need lots of food, and are called “heavy feeders.” Add plenty of organic matter such as compost or rotted manure to the garden before planting. 

Sow 3 or 4 seeds at one-inch deep in slight mounds or hills 4 feet apart. To keep weeds down and retain moisture, mulch with leaves, straw or other organic material. As the plants grow, you can feed them with a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion every few weeks. In addition to fertilizer, these fast growers need lots of water, so water them whenever the soil is dry, making sure the water seeps down to the roots. Summer squash are easily killed by frost, so to extend the harvest, cover the plants with sheets on cool autumn nights.

In addition to the generic green zucchini, you can grow yellow zucchini or even striped Cocozelle zucchini. Cocozelle has a more robust, almost nutty flavor. If you want to grow zucchini in pots, choose a short variety such as Green Bush.

The amazing thing about zucchini plants is how much they can produce in such a short time. Always cut the squash off the plant with a sharp knife rather than tearing them, as you could rip the vines by mistake. Pick your zucchini when they are small, under 8 inches long, for the best flavor. Larger fruits can be cut in half longways and hollowed out like boats, filled with mashed squash, breadcrumbs and sausage, then cooked in the oven for a substantial meal. 

You can fry zucchini in olive oil with onions, grate them into soups and stews, add them shredded to muffins and cakes or best of all, bake them into apple pies. No apples in this pie: just slices of peeled zucchini, seeds removed, boiled for 4 minutes and seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, sugar and vanilla, topped with butter and baked in a nice pastry shell. It will fool your guests and deliver a delicious dessert lower in carbs than real apple pie.

After all, we are a nation of immigrants, so what could be more American than zucchini pie?

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.