A Farmer’s Trick for Making Zucchini Taste Great

Abra Berens, author of the new cookbook “Ruffage,” wants vegetables to be treated with more respect.

EE Berger

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I can take little credit for the vegetable garden that has sprung up in our backyard this year, but I sure am enjoying it. My husband (the gardener) and I were admiring its rows of perky kale leaves and stick-straight chives over the weekend. So far, he explained, he’s focusing on growing greens and herbs, plus an ambitious experiment to try and coax tomatoes from this foggy corner of San Francisco.

“No zucchini?” I wondered, thinking back to harvesting the vegetable from my parent’s garden when I was a kid. “Nah,” he replied, “no one really likes zucchini.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Aside from occasionally indulging in the sweet comfort of zucchini bread or a rare fried squash blossom, I generally avoid the bland and starchy vegetable. So do many other people: “When you cook an overly mature zucchini, the watery flesh breaks up around the pulpy seeds, which you eat mainly so no one can plant them and start the odious cycle all over again,” writes NPR’s T. Susan Chang. Bon Appetit’s food director Carla Lalli Music likens the vegetable to “a wet bath mat.” Ouch.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Not according to Abra Berens, a former farmer and the author of a buzzy new cookbook called Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. Berens, who ran Bare Knuckle Farm in Michigan for eight years and is now the chef at Granor Farm, joined us on our latest episode of Bite:

Because the vegetable has such a mellow flavor, Berens likes to grill or panfry slices of zucchini or summer squash, and then cool them in a very acidic vinaigrette, a technique from Spanish cuisine called escabeche. As the ingredient cools, it soaks in flavors, “sort of like when you get a steam, your pores all open up,” she explains, “that’s what the zucchini’s doing—getting a spa treatment.” She describes the resulting taste as consistent, bright, and “lightly pickley.”

The technique offers a simple solution for what to do with that bunch of raw squash that shows up at your next summer barbecue. “It seems to me that most grilled meats have a sauce on them,” Berens points out, “but we don’t treat vegetables with the same respect.”

Check out the full recipe, along with a recipe for grilled zucchini with white beans, below.

Summer Squash Escabeche with Mushrooms, Arugula, and Steak

Reprinted from Ruffage by Abra Berens with permission from Chronicle Books, 2019
“The acidity of the marinated squash cuts through the richness of the meat. If you want to avoid stove work, cook the mushrooms and squash on the grill and proceed with the recipe as written.”

Steak (any cut), 6 to 8 oz per person
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup olive oil, plus more for the arugula
1 Tbsp brown sugar
½ tsp salt
3 to 4 summer squash (40 oz) summer squash, cut into long planks or ¼-inch slices
6 oz mushrooms (any variety), sliced
1 bag (4 oz ) arugula

Season the steak liberally with salt and pepper. Whisk together the vinegar, oil, brown sugar, and salt.
Panfry or grill the summer squash until golden brown (this will mostly likely need to be done in batches). When the squash is cooked, immediately dress with some of the vinegar mixture and allow to cool. Panfry the mushrooms until crispy. Grill the steak to your desired doneness. Dress the arugula lightly with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Combine the squash and mushrooms. Serve the steak topped with the squash mixture and the arugula.

Grilled Zucchini Planks with White Beans, Olive Oil, and Rosemary
“This is one of my favorite summer dishes because the beans are made well ahead. The summer squash can be grilled in advance and served room temperature or reheated in an oven just before serving. This dish isn’t finicky and is exactly what I want on a hot summer night.”

Neutral oil
6 garlic cloves (1.2 oz), minced or cut into thin slices
3 sprigs rosemary, stemmed and minced
Two 12-oz cans white beans, drained and rinsed (or cook your own)
¼ cup sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil to dress the beans, plus more for dressing
3 to 4 summer squash (40 oz), cut into ¼- to ½-inch- thick planks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bag (4 oz ) arugula

In a frying pan, heat a glug of neutral oil and fry the garlic and rosemary until fragrant but not browned. Add the beans and sauté briefly. Add the vinegar and ¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil and remove the pan from the heat but keep at room temperature. Season the squash liberally with salt and pepper and grill over medium-high heat. Dress the arugula lightly with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spoon the beans onto a serving platter. Top with the squash and arugula and serve.


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