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Oodles of zoodles

When I was a working stiff years ago in Washington state, July invariably produced three major events in our town: a parade on the Fourth, the annual PRCA rodeo, and the harvest of mountains of zucchini.

The Yakima Valley is famous for its abundance of farms yielding asparagus, mint, hops, berries, pumpkins, apples, pears, grapes and more than 30 other types of fruits and vegetables. But the mountains of zucchini to which I refer came from one man’s garden.

He was a local drug store owner and pharmacist with a hobby garden the size of a city lot. He invariably would show up at the pharmacy lunch counter several times every July with a trunk load of the green gourds and proudly present bags full to the good old boys sipping their morning coffee. He had given up trying to get rid of them in the dark of night on his neighbors’ front porches.

As one of the lucky recipients, I was forced to come up with creative ways to use the ubiquitous fruit. And since they’re plentiful in Rogue Valley food stores now, I’ll tempt you with recipes for some very tasty zucchini dishes.

One of the most versatile uses of zucchini is as noodles, often referred to as “zoodles.” You can substitute them for pasta in a variety of dishes, hot or cold, and you can add them to salads and, just before serving, to soup.

These days you can find spiralized zucchini noodles at some supermarkets, but making your own freshly cut zoodles is so much better — and cheaper.

Larger zucchini are easier to spiralize, but any size will do. Plan on one medium zucchini per person.

How to make zucchini noodles

You can make zoodles in all shapes and sizes, but my favorite is the long skinny strings that imitate spaghetti, angel hair or fettucine.

The easiest and quickest way to transform zucchini into noodles is with a spiralizer. You can find a variety of table-top and hand-held spiralizers for sale at local kitchen stories or housewares sections in department stores for about $20 to $50. You clamp a piece of zucchini in place and crank out zoodles by the handful.

I use a julienne vegetable peeler instead. It’s one of those Y-shaped peelers with serrated teeth that shred vegetables into strips in no time. I lay a zucchini flat on a cutting board and draw the peeler from one end to the other, rotating the zucchini after a few passes until I’ve done all sides. I throw away the small core because it’s too watery. When you’re finished, you can pull apart the noodles with your fingers.

You also can use a sharp knife to cut flat, thin planks which you can then cut into fettucine-sized strips.

A mandoline works, too, allowing you to cut thin, uniform flats you can slice into strips or leave unsliced to layer in a lasagna.

Don’t peel zucchini before you make your zoodles. The firm skin helps produce a nice al dente bite for the finished product.

You can make your noodles ahead of time. Store them in the refrigerator in a large plastic or glass container lined with a paper towel, and they’ll keep for up to three days. Let them sit at room temperature while you prepare your dish.

To cook or not to cook

If you were to ask me how to cook zucchini noodles, I’d say don’t.

Cooking your zoodles can be problematic. Because zucchini are 95% water, applying too much heat can produce a soggy, mushy, watery product.

For some recipes I simply top a plate of raw noodles with the hot, saucy accompaniment. A cooked ragu, for instance, will add just enough heat to warm the zoodles it tops without creating any watery puddles.

For dishes that include sautéed veggies, seafood or meats, I add the raw noodles to a stove-top pan at the end, stirring for just a minute to warm them and coat them with the sauce.

For salads, zoodles are quite tasty raw. Zucchini have a mild flavor, slightly sweet and slightly bitter, with a rich feel.

You can substitute zucchini noodles for pasta in just about any of your favorite pasta recipes. The following recipes will provide generous servings for two. If you’re cooking for four, double the ingredients.

Zucchini Pasta with Lemon Garlic Shrimp

2 medium zucchini

14 large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (tail on)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2-3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 lemon, juice and zest

1/8 cup white wine or broth (chicken or veg)

Handful of chopped parsley

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut zucchini noodles and set aside.

Heat oil in a pan over medium high heat. Add the shrimp in one layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook 1-2 minutes until they start to turn opaque, then turn over with tongs and add garlic. Reduce heat to medium and cook shrimp an additional minute or so, stirring garlic occasionally. Don’t overcook. Remove shrimp to a plate.

Add the butter, lemon juice, zest, pepper flakes, and liquid to the pan, simmering for 3 minutes while stirring.

Stir in the parsley, then add the zoodles and shrimp, stirring for a minute over the heat. Serve immediately.

Zoodles Bolognese

I don’t use milk, so it’s really not a true Bolognese, but the rest of the flavors are there. You can make your sauce with chopped fresh tomatoes, but to save time, I usually use canned diced tomatoes.

2 medium zucchini

1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/4 large onion, chopped

1 can (14- 1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes

Scant tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon tomato paste or 4 tablespoons tomato sauce

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Grated Parmesan cheese for topping

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh basil leaves for garnish

In a large pot, heat olive oil on medium heat. Saute onion until translucent. Add garlic and cook for another minute, stirring.

Add tomatoes to the pot. You can pulse ahead of time in a food processor to reduce size of chunks if you prefer more of a puree. I like the chunks. Simmer for 20-25 minutes until sauce has thickened.

While tomatoes are simmering, make zucchini noodles and set aside. In a saucepan, brown the ground beef, breaking it into crumbles with a wooden spoon. Set aside.

After the sauce has reduced, stir in the tomato paste or tomato sauce, the chopped basil, salt and pepper. Cook for another 3 minutes, add the ground beef and stir to combine.

Ladle meat sauce onto a plate of fresh zoodles and top with Parmesan and extra basil leaves.

Zoodle Caprese Salad

I became a fan of Caprese salads on a trip to Italy in 2003. The combination of fresh tomatoes, soft fresh mozzarella, basil and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil was fresh as a summer breeze and delicious. The zoodles version requires a slightly different treatment — preparation of a pesto sauce that will enrobe the noodles with the Caprese flavor.

2 medium zucchini

1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

4 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into finger-tip-sized chunks

Basil pesto:

1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts, plus extra for garnish

2 tablespoons toasted walnuts or cashews

1/2 cup packed basil leaves

3 tablespoons olive oil

Garlic clove

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch of salt and pepper

Make noodles from the zucchini and set aside in a large salad bowl.

In a food processor, add all the ingredients for the pesto except the olive oil. Pulse until well mixed, then turn on the processor while slowly drizzling in the olive oil and process until smooth. Set aside.

Into the bowl of zucchini, add the cut tomatoes, mozzarella chunks and pesto sauce. Toss to coat and serve immediately. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and fresh basil leaves, and add a lemon wedge for spritzing.

Baked Zucchini Parmesan Chips

Note: When I don’t have panko, I crush saltines as a substitute.

2 medium to small zucchini

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup grated Parmesan (cheddar can work)

1/3 cup panko or fresh bread crumbs or crushed saltines

1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves, chopped

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

3 grinds of fresh black pepper

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Slice ends off zucchini but leave skin on. Slice into 1/4-inch rounds and toss in a bowl with the olive oil to coat.

On a large plate, stir together the Parmesan, bread crumbs, chopped basil, garlic salt and pepper. Working with one zucchini round at a time, place each into the mixture and press the coating onto both sides. Place on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until brown and crispy, about 25 minutes.

Jim Flint is an Ashland writer and enthusiastic amateur chef. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

An easy way to make "zoodles" is with a spiralizer, available at local kitchen stores and department stores. Photo by Jim Flint
Zucchini Noodles with Garlic Lemon Shrimp is a healthful, delicious alternative to the pasta version. Photo by Jim Flint