The French word courgette refers to a green-skinned squash native to the Americas that grows easily—sometimes too easily—in temperate climates. In Britain and New Zealand, the vegetable is called a courgette, although it sometimes is referred to as a vegetable marrow. In the U.S., Canada, and Australia, this squash goes by its Italian name of zucchini, although it sometimes is called Italian squash or summer squash. We could call it by its Latin name, cucurbita pepo, but that refers to all summer squashes including a couple varieties of pumpkins! This is all very confusing.
However this squash may be labeled at your grocery store, only a couple of the more than 500 varieties of this vegetable is probably available to you. The skin will either be dark green, a light variegated green, or yellow. The shape will either be cylindrical or spherical. When buying zucchini, choose specimens that are firm and blemish-free. If the zucchini bends easily, it probably has been too long since it was picked.
In France, there does not appear to be any organizations that promote the growing and sales of zucchini like there are for apples or potatoes, and no museums like there are for tomatoes. I guess zucchini has to survive on its own—something it can do quite well in the wild.
Perusing my French cookbook collection, I was unable to find any recipes using zucchini earlier than about 1920. And although there are many modern books that contain zucchini recipes, there are just as many that do not. It appears that books with recipes from the Mediterranean regions, such as Provence, are more likely to have zucchini recipes.
When I did find recipes, the zucchini was often hollowed out and used more as a container for other ingredients than for its own taste, or it was used as part of the chorus in a dish with many actors. In choosing the recipes that accompany this article I looked for recipes where the zucchini took the lead. In the few where the zucchini is stuffed, either the filling includes zucchini or is so mild that the flavor of the zucchini is present in every bite. In the couple of the recipes where the zucchini is part of an ensemble, its presence and taste is not lost among the other ingredients.
The recipes call for using zucchini cut into various shapes. To hollow out a zucchini for filling, use a small dessert spoon. I have an old tarnished one with a thin cross-section that I’ve found works very nicely for this. There’s probably something similar hiding in the back of one of your kitchen drawers that will work just fine. For cutting shreds, I use my chef’s knife when the desired width is larger than 2 millimeters, and a Japanese mandolin called a Benriner when a smaller shred is required. Benriners, as well as variations by other companies, are readily available in stores and online. Traditional French mandolins do not work very well for shredding zucchini. (In the restaurants I’ve worked in in France we always used Benriners.) When I produce the shreds by hand, I start by cutting the zucchini diagonally into slices equal to the width I want in the final shreds. Then, three or four of the slices are piled up and these cut into the shreds. When the recipe calls for round slices, I use a chef’s knife to cut them when the thickness is greater than 2 millimeters and the Benriner when it is 2 millimeters or less.
Zucchini are composed of about 95 percent water. This means that preparations made with zucchini can become quite soggy if overcooked or salted too much. The solution is to either salt the raw zucchini to draw out and discard some of the water or to cook the zucchini very lightly, or sometimes both. The recipes included with this article specify the various methods of producing satisfactory results.
As a child, I was only exposed to soggy, overcooked zucchini. Now, half a century later, I am learning that when properly cooked, or even raw, zucchini can be a very delightful and satisfying vegetable.