Cucurbita pepo ssp. pepo var.
(Cucurbitaceae — the squash family)
common name: Zucchini, Courgette
Cucurbita is the Latin word for a gourd; pepo is from the Greek πεπων (pepon), cooked by the sun, ripe. In North America and Australia the term zucchini (from the Italian) is commonly used, whereas in the UK, France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa it is usually called courgette, from the French. In the UK it is sometimes called a vegetable marrow, especially when it is harvested in a more mature state than the courgette, and in South Africa it is sometimes called a baby marrow.
Zucchini come in many shapes, and a few different colours, but the long green oblongs, resembling cucumbers, are the ones most commonly seen. The fruits are harvested while still immature, often with the remains of the flower parts still attached. While easy to grow, zucchini, like all squash, need lots of bees for pollination, and ideally more than one plant (for cross-pollination); in areas where bees are scarce, or where there is high pesticide use, gardeners often experience fruit abortion, where the fruit begins to grow, then dries or rots. This is because too few grains of pollen have been delivered to the female flower, and it can be corrected by hand pollination, or by increasing the bee population.
The male flower (the plant is monoecious) grows directly on the stem of the plant in the leaf axils on a long stalk, and is slightly smaller than the female flower. Both flowers are edible, and are sometimes used as a garnish, especially when the meal contains cooked zucchini. Firm, fresh flowers that are only partly open should be chosen for cooking, with the pistils removed from female flowers and the stamens removed from the male ones. The flower stem may be retained to hold on to while cooking, rather than injure the petals, and then removed before serving.
Zucchini are usually picked when less than 20 cm long, while the seeds are still soft and immature. Mature zucchini can be almost a metre long, but these will be fibrous. Ideally, zucchini should be stored no longer than three days. When chilled for longer storage, as they invariably are for supermarkets, they are prone to chilling damage that shows as sunken pits on the surface, especially when brought up to room temperature.
In Mexico, the flower (called flor de calabaza) is preferred over the fruit, and is often cooked in soups or used as a filling for quesadillas. In Italy, zucchini are served in a variety of ways, especially breaded and pan-fried. Sometimes the flowers are deep-fried (fiori di zucca). In France zucchini are a key ingredient in ratatouille, a stew of summer fruits and vegetables; they are also stuffed with meat and other fruits such as tomatoes to make courgette farci (stuffed courgette). In Turkey, zucchini is the main ingredient in mücver, a pancake of shredded zucchini with flower and eggs, fried in olive oil and served with yoghurt. In Greece they are very popular, and cooked in a great variety of ways; in some parts of the country the flowers are stuffed with white cheese or with rice and herbs, and occasionally meat, deep-fried or oven baked with tomato sauce.
Photographs © Donald Simpson, taken in Picnic Bay 2012