Zucchini in salads

Use your runaway zucchini crop to inspire gourmet garden salad ideas.

From beginner to seasoned, gardeners all have one thing in common - zucchini. Every gardener knows the pleasure, and the pitfalls, of planting zucchini. We're talking about the all-time winner in vegetables that run amok.

If you plant even two hills, you will no doubt have more than enough to feed your family zucchini every day of the week and give away bushels to every neighbor within a ten mile radius. You will also get very, very tired of it and end up wasting more than you use. That is, unless you come up with new ways to serve this abundant vegetable. That's where learning how to create gourmet salads using zucchini comes in.

Overrun with choices for this prolific favorite

The first rule of using zucchini in gourmet salads is to pick them small. Young zucchini are perfect for fresh green salads. At this small size, you'll find the entire zucchini is firm and tender, without a seedy or pulpy inside. You don't even have to peel them, just scrub them and cut them up. You can slice the zucchini into very thin discs, use a peeler and shave them into curls, cut them into thin 'shoestring' style, or dice them if you prefer. Remember, harvest them when they are tiny and you will have the perfect zucchini, ready for your super salads.

Now the sky's the limit when it comes to salad fixings. Use the zucchini as the base and toss with crispy red bell peppers and sweet onions in a vinaigrette dressing. Let sit for a few minutes so the zucchini absorbs the flavor and you have a gourmet salad that will please any summer salad fanatic. Or toss together a simple salad using equal amounts of sliced zucchini and tomatoes, with fresh basil chiffonade and a lemon and oil dressing.

Make a tart, tangy, or spicy zucchini salsa or relish to serve on top of hearty greens like baby spinach, arugula, mustard greens, or kale. Mix tiny diced zucchini with diced cucumbers, chilies, green peppers, scallions, and herbs of your choice, and top with a drizzle of red wine vinegar and olive oil, with a sprinkling of kosher salt. Let sit for a few minutes so the flavors blend, then serve over a cold bed of greens. Sprinkle a bit of bleu cheese or feta on top for the full gourmet deal.

In the beginning, there were blossoms

But, before we even get to those young zucchini plants, have you noticed the bright yellow blossoms peeking out from underneath the big leaves? Those zucchini blossoms are your first opportunity to create a gourmet delight!

Gathering zucchini blossoms isn't tricky, but you don't want to ruin your zucchini crop in the process. Look for blossoms that are on the end of a thin stem. These are the 'male' blossoms and the ones you want to pick. Of course, you can pick a very small zucchini with the blossom still attached and use it like that. But, if you pick too many of these 'female' blossoms, your zucchini crop will slow down.

Because the zucchini blossoms are so delicate, they don't last long off the stem. Pick and prepare the blossoms the same day. Gently wash the blossom and take a sharp paring knife and remove the spiky green parts just above the stem surrounding the blossom on the bottom. Cut the stem off to about a half inch or so. Then, use your knife to cut the blossom open lengthwise to 'butterfly' it. You'll see the stamen or pistil; be sure to remove this. Wash off any pollen or dirt that may have been left inside the blossom.

Now you have a gourmet garden treat that will impress even the greatest salad chef! Use the blossom as is to garnish your zucchini salad, or batter and fry it for a crispy surprise. Serve two or three fried blossoms on top of a green salad with zucchini relish for a special luncheon or light dinner. This is surely look and taste like a gourmet treat.

When you think of zucchini dishes, you most likely think of a skillet filled with zucchini, onion, tomato, and cheese. Perhaps you think of bread. But, you don't have to serve the same zucchini dishes if you know how to pick and serve zucchini at their tender best. Once you get a taste of tiny, fresh zucchini tossed perfectly in a gourmet salad, you may start plotting out another garden spot for next year!