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This Summer, Smash, Break, and Burn Your Zucchini

Not only will you create a range of textures but you’ll also unlock a surprising variety of flavors.

Published Aug. 7, 2023.

When it comes to summer produce, sweet corn and ripe, juicy tomatoes get all the love. But I’m here to advocate for zucchini: When you strip away the ingredients that are typically paired with the slender green squash—feta cheese, warm spices for quick bread, and so on—and prepare it in a way that accentuates its assets, a remarkable range of appealing qualities is revealed.

When barely cooked—just enough to slightly soften the flesh and get the juices flowing—zucchini bursts with the cool, floral fruitiness of fresh melon and cucumber. Cooked more fully, the vegetable turns dense and tender, and a mild, nutty sweetness that evokes its butternut brethren is coaxed forth. I was looking to highlight both of these attributes in a quick, summery side dish. 

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Smash Hit

I got to thinking about the delicious Sichuan cucumber salad pai huang gua, which is made by smashing crisp cukes into irregular, jagged pieces with the broad side of a cleaver to help them better grip their dressing. What if I did the same with zucchini? Normally we do everything in our power to create even pieces of food that cook evenly—but chunks of varied sizes that cooked at different rates would develop the full spectrum of flavors and textures that zucchini has to offer. 

I used a meat pounder to smash 2 pounds of squash and then broke each one into different-size pieces with sharp peaks and corners. After drizzling the craggy chunks with olive oil and fresh lemon juice (a little acidity would highlight the subtle flavors), I arranged them on a baking sheet, seasoned them with kosher salt, and slipped the sheet under a blazing-hot broiler. 

Smashing Success

1. Using meat pounder or rolling pin, firmly but gently smash zucchini until it flattens and cracks develop along its length. Trim and discard ends.

2. Break each zucchini into 2 to 4 large pieces.

The zucchini, set just 5 inches from the broiler’s radiant heat, developed spotty charring in about 10 minutes. During that time, the large portions heated through but retained an almost-raw, superjuicy bite, while the small ones turned creamy and fork tender and tasted nutty-sweet. What’s more, some of the thinner areas burned ever so slightly, contributing even more dimensionality. After removing the sheet from the oven, I let the zucchini cool slightly before cutting it into bite-size chunks. 

When Not to Season Evenly

Just as we stray from convention by deliberately cooking the zucchini unevenly, we don’t recommend salting each piece evenly either: If you were to sprinkle the kosher salt—2 teaspoons for 2 pounds of zucchini—uniformly over the squash, the thinner pieces would be oversalted and the thicker ones undersalted. Instead, salt the more voluminous chunks more heavily than the diminutive ones. Apply this approach to any irregularly shaped or sized ingredients. 

Dress-Up Time

While the zucchini cooled, I stirred together a lush dressing, thinking that the lean squash would benefit from creamy richness. I thinned ½ cup of Greek yogurt with 2 tablespoons of water and then stirred in fresh minced garlic and salt. Rather than tossing the zucchini in this milky mixture, which would mask its delicate flavors, I schmeared it across a plate before piling the chunks on top. Sprinkles of chopped toasted hazelnuts, smoky-tart Aleppo pepper, fresh herbs (use whatever is in your garden or produce drawer—dill, parsley, basil, or chives) and a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil finished the dish with crunch, vibrant green color to echo the deep hue of the squash, and glossy richness. 

Zucchini Has Range. Here’s How to Expose It.

Our smash-and-broil technique is a terrific way to showcase the multidimensionality of zucchini. Whacking the squash breaks it into irregular pieces that cook at different rates, an ideal situation for highlighting its nuances.

  • After broiling, large, wide sections remain juicy, verging on raw, with hints of fresh cucumber and barely ripe melon. 
  • Thinner, smaller sections become tender; they flaunt a delicate sweetness and nuttiness reminiscent of roasted winter squash. 
  • The hot, fast cooking also causes any jagged edges to dry out and blacken, adding specks of bitterness that enliven every bite. 

Science: The Nuances of Char  

When a food is exposed to a powerful heat source, thin areas rapidly dry out, cook, and blacken into carbon, or char. The process is called pyrolysis and it develops a wide range of flavors: As the proteins and sugars in the food are heated above 350 degrees, they first undergo Maillardization and caramelization and then the flavorful compounds formed in those reactions break down into smaller, charry molecules that enhance a dish with tinges of bitterness, smoke, roastiness, and delicate crispness.

My colleagues loved this novel take on zucchini and encouraged me to try other flavorings and dairy choices. I settled on ricotta enriched with salty-nutty Pecorino Romano and garnished with toasted, chopped sliced almonds; twists of coarse black pepper; and lots of fresh herbs (basil is wonderful here). Another variation features lemony sour cream, toasted pine nuts, more black pepper, dill, and chives. With this method in hand, I know that the next time my colleagues drop off excess garden zucchini, I’ll be taking some home for smashing. 

Select smaller zucchini as they tend to be firmer and have smaller seeds than larger ones. 

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