If, like me, you grow or receive more zucchini in August than you know what to do with, this post is for you.
It’s also for you if you love garlic and if you’re ready to see basil as a green vegetable (i.e., best served in large amounts) than as a mere a seasoning ingredient.
As soon as our last frost date has passed, I plant a long row of common basil in my vegetable garden, alongside the early salad crops—spinach, lettuces, carrots, beets, and mesclun salad mixes—I’ve already planted.
Basil is a king among medicinal herbs; in fact, its name derives from the ancient Greek word for king.
I grow the ordinary culinary varieties Genovese and Mammoth, rather than the more medicinally powerful and most-studied species, called Holy Basil. But all basils contain anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial compounds, along with minerals, vitamins and even protein. So I figure my love of strong basil pesto and other basil-rich dishes are probably supporting my health.
The zucchini/summer squash problem
By late July, my basil stands almost three feet tall, with lush, multi-branching stalks and the beginnings of a few flowers. Coincidentally, just as the basil reaches its midsummer peak, I’m also harvesting and drying garlic and onions for winter storage, and the first tender zucchinis and summer squashes appear.
I’ve always found it hard to pay attention to summer squash, when the garden is also overflowing with numerous greens, broccoli, tender green beans, the first ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and sweet corn.
But on and on it comes, and you can’t neglect your squash harvest for long, or one day you’ll be on your way to picking beans and stumble upon half a dozen baseball-bat-sized fruits protruding from the squash patch.
We have a standing joke around here—and in many other parts of the nation—that you have to make sure to lock your car in August. Otherwise, you’ll return to find it filled with zucchini.
So, yeah, I grill, roast, steam, and stuff them. I slice them into lasagne “noodles.” I grate them into breads and pizza crusts. I give them away.
But none of these strategies uses very much squash per meal, so one day many years ago, I decided to try my hand at concocting a dish that would use the maximum amount of zucchini and that people would also rave about. It’s been through a lot of name changes over the years, but these days I’ve taken to calling it Zucchini Extreme.
It turns out that basil, and lots of it, aided by a few onions and a bulb of garlic, is the perfect way to magically transform an otherwise bland dish of zucchini and other summer squashes.
Cut available zucchini or summer squash (any size below baseball-bat proportions) into chunks.
Dice a medium-sized onion and a two or three cloves of garlic per quart (or so) of squash, and mix with squash in large mixing bowl.
Pour a little olive oil to cover the bottom of the biggest wok or frying pan you have. Use two if you have a lot of squash. Add vegetable mixture, cover, and cook on medium heat until squash begins to yield its water.
Uncover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the water has evaporated. It should be slightly browned, like caramelized onions, and reduced in volume by at least half.
Now, to each frying pan, add one full cup of finely chopped fresh basil, more if you really love basil. Adding the herb in the last minutes of cooking helps preserve its spicy, complex flavor.
Stir it well and cook on very low heat for about five minutes, longer if the mixture is still juicy. If it’s dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water and stir to prevent burning. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Basil-Zucchini Extreme tastes a bit like mild basil pesto, though sweeter. You can serve it as a side dish, hot or cold. You can freeze it in zippered freezer bags. You can add a chunk of it to winter soups and casseroles, or make a creamy soup of it by running it through a blender and heating it with a little shredded herbed cheese.
Photo: A sample of the ingredients used in Basil-Zucchini Extreme. Don’t be fooled by the yellow Zephyr squash. It’s firm and meaty like zucchini, but with a nuttier flavor.