The Vegetable Butcher Offers You 10 Ways to Make Zucchini a Main Dish

published Jun 22, 2015
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Zucchini is coming into season right now where I live in Columbus, Ohio. I’m genuinely thrilled! Zucchini signals the official start of summer and all the other vegetables that are on the way. Zucchini makes life a little easier in my professional kitchen (it takes almost no time to prep); it brings endless ideas to the menu and some of our customers’ favorite dishes.

At home, the arrival of local zucchini means I can cook without having to plan ahead. After a long day at work or an after-work function, zucchini will support me with a quick and easy meal (no matter how many people end up at my table). Zucchini brings a sense of comfort and ease to this time of year — as long as there are a few zucchini in the fridge, there’s always something to make for dinner.

I don’t have a special zucchini trick to share with you. I just want to share my excitement and promote zucchini as a main dish. It feels appropriate — considering this very moment in the year — to send out a reminder. Zucchini can be much, much more than a side!

Let zucchini inspire your meals and be the star. Stock your fridge with any and all varieties of zucchini until the last ones are left in the fall. Keep a few other basic ingredients around (see below). I promise you will be able to pull together a meal in no time and have more time to enjoy warm summer nights. I am sharing a few ideas (well, 10 actually) to get you started.

Zucchini Selection and Storage Tips

  • Choose small to medium zucchini. They offer the best flavor and texture. Largish zucchini are okay. Very large, overgrown zucchini are watery, lacking good flavor, and full of seeds.
  • Zucchini is best eaten as close to harvest as possible, but if you buy fresh zucchini from a good source, you can leave your zucchini for at least a week or so. Make sure there is no moisture in your storage bag, especially if you think you won’t get to the zucchini for a while. Trim and discard soft spots or brown spots if they appear. There’s no need to throw it away unless it is full of mold.

Pantry Basics, Other Provisions, and Vegetables to Help Make a Meal out of Zucchini

If you have one or a few of these ingredients around. I promise you can quickly make a summer meal out of zucchini.

  • Good olive oil, butter
  • Fresh herbs, like basil, dill, cilantro, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley
  • Ground cumin or cumin seeds, coriander, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes
  • Lemon, lime, red or white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, white balsamic vinegar
  • Eggs
  • Cheese, like feta, fontina, goat cheese, mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta, or yogurt
  • Garlic, onions, scallions
  • Arugula, corn, eggplant, peppers, potato, Swiss chard, sweet potato, tomato
  • Bread, couscous, flour, pasta, pizza dough, polenta, quinoa, rice, tortillas

10 Ways to Make Zucchini a Main Meal

1. Zucchini with Ricotta and Herbs

Sauté or roast diced zucchini in olive oil. Season with salt, red pepper flakes, and a few pinches of ground cumin, cumin seeds, or fennel seeds. Cook until just tender. Top with a handful of fresh herbs (I love mint and basil here), a generous spoonful of whole-milk ricotta, a sprinkle of flaked sea salt, and a drizzle of your best olive oil. Some good bread and a glass of wine is all I need, but you can certainly serve this over pasta, steamed grains, or a simple omelet.

2. Zucchini, Corn, Caramelized Onion, and Basil (Pasta or Frittata)

Caramelize onions in a large skillet then take them out of the pan. Sauté zucchini in olive oil with a little garlic until fragrant. Stir in corn kernels and cook another minute. Stir in the onions and fresh basil. Toss the mixture with pasta, olive oil, a little butter, and cheese, or with a pesto. You can also serve this perfect combination over polenta. Always finish with more fresh basil. Finish with a little chili oil if you wish. You can also stir the mixture into whipped eggs, and pour it into an oiled quiche dish or skillet to make a frittata. Add dollops of goat cheese or ricotta to the top towards the end of baking, or to serve. If you have cherry tomatoes around, feel free to add them to the skillet and cook until they just start to burst. It’s an excellent addition to pasta.

3. Zucchini, Almonds, and Quinoa with Basil Vinaigrette

Toss diced zucchini with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. (Maybe also some ground cumin or fennel seed if you wish.) Roast the zucchini until just tender. Make a quick batch of quinoa. Toss the zucchini and warm quinoa with a basil vinaigrette, toasted almonds (or other nuts or seeds), sliced scallions, and a crumble of feta (or other cheese).

4. Zucchini Cakes

Shred zucchini with a julienne peeler, on a box grater, or in a food processor. Combine with fresh herbs (dill and mint are great here), salt, and pepper. If you wish, add some shredded potato, corn kernels, or diced tomatoes. Add an egg and enough flour to form a batter that will hold together. (It should not be too thick.) One at a time, drop a spoonful into hot oil, making sure not to overcrowd the pan, and fry the cakes on both sides until golden and crispy. Serve with more fresh herbs and a dollop of yogurt or a sprinkle of cheese. A raw tomato salad or a spoonful of tomato sauce also makes for a nice pairing.

5. Grilled Zucchini Planks

Place zucchini against your cutting board and cut the zucchini at an angle to create oblong planks. Brush them with a garlic and olive oil marinade (add herbs if you wish). Grill, turning the planks until tender and grill marks appear. Serve over a smear of goat cheese crèma (goat cheese whipped with a little cream), and top with chimichurri, and a handful of arugula. No grain is even necessary, but you can add some couscous to the meal if you wish. Alternatively, layer the planks with thick slices of heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella, and top with pesto or torn basil.

6. Zucchini Tacos

Zucchini makes an excellent filling for tacos. Sauté or grill sliced or diced zucchini with onions, garlic, peppers, potato, and/or sweet potato. (Any combination will be great, and certainly add any other veggies you have on hand.) Cumin and coriander make nice additions here, too. Finish with a generous squeeze of lime juice and fresh cilantro. Top with diced tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes. Add your favorite taco toppings, depending on what you have on hand. I like a good dollop of Greek yogurt, avocado, and shredded cabbage.

7. Stuffed Zucchini

Cut zucchini in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Starting about 1/4 inch from each end, scoop out some zucchini flesh with a spoon or melon baller, making sure not to dig all the way through to the skin. (Hollowed-out zucchini should resemble little boats.) Roughly chop the zucchini flesh and reserve it for stuffing. Place zucchini halves in a baking dish or on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season the boats lightly with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, sauté diced onion until it begins to soften. Add garlic and reserved zucchini flesh, and continue to cook until they begin to soften. Add chopped Swiss chard, spinach, or kale. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Cook until the greens are completely wilted. Coarsely chop the mixture in a food processor. Combine with an egg (or two for a large batch of filling), chopped fresh herbs, and Parmesan cheese. Stir in dried bread crumbs — enough to thicken the stuffing. Stuff the zucchini boats and top with more grated Parmesan or a melty cheese of your choice. Bake at 425°F for about 15 minutes. If you wish, turn the broiler on to brown the cheese on top.

8. Zucchini Galette or Pizza

Layer zucchini slices and the cheese of your choice into a galette dough or on top of pizza. After baking, finish with fresh herbs, and torn zucchini flowers (if you have them).

9. Zucchini Crostini

Shave zucchini into thin rounds with a handheld slicer/mandoline, or shred zucchini into ribbons with a julienne peeler. Toss the raw zucchini with lemon, olive oil, garlic, and fresh herbs (basil, mint, or dill). Pile the zucchini on goat cheese- or ricotta-smeared toast. (Alternatively, you can sauté or grill zucchini to top cheese-smeared toast. You can also try layering pesto, zucchini, and crumbles of cheese on toast.)

10. Raw Zucchini Ribbons with Lemon, Herbs, and Parmesan

I mentioned this in my post on julienne peelers, but I think it deserves another mention. Use a julienne peeler or a food processor fitted with the smallest shredding attachment (or a spiralizer) to shred zucchini into thin ribbons. You can also use a standard vegetable peeler to peel zucchini into wide, thin ribbons. Squeeze lemon juice into a bowl and let smashed garlic cloves stand in the juice for at least 10 minutes. Whisk in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Remove the garlic before dressing the zucchini ribbons. Toss the zucchini ribbons in the simple dressing, and add a mix of coarsely chopped fresh summer herbs, toasted almonds (or other nuts), and a shaving of Parmesan or sprinkle of feta.

What are your favorite ways to turn zucchini into a meal?

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)