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Thursday, July 29, 2004 12:23 am

When size does matter

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Recently a fellow gardener proudly showed me her six-pound zucchini. Though impressive, this mammoth green monster is better suited to the compost pile than to the kitchen. "Big and green" are words best used to describe a watermelon, not a zucchini.

Unfortunately, many gardeners wait too long to harvest summer squash. For the best quality and flavor, summer squash such as zucchini, straightneck, and crookneck should be harvested while small and tender, six to eight inches long and less than two inches in diameter. The skin should be glossy, tender, and free of blemishes. Round zucchini such as the Eight Ball are best harvested when they're the size of a billiard ball. Patty-pan-type squash should be harvested when they are three or four inches in diameter.

Check for new fruits on plants every day or two. Squash grow rapidly, especially in hot weather -- mature fruits form five to eight days after the plant flowers. When squash are properly harvested, both the skin and seeds can be eaten. Do not allow summer squash to become large, hard, dull-colored, and seedy; it will be stringy, with poor flavor and tough skin. Also, large fruits sap the plant of strength that is needed to produce more young fruit.

Summer squash is eaten in a variety of ways -- baked, boiled, steamed, pan-fried. Avoid removing the squash's peel, which contains many nutrients. You can slice or dice the squash, then fry it in olive oil or butter and season it to taste. You can combine squash with tomatoes, or dip it in flour or egg and cracker crumbs, then fry it. Squash can be seasoned with basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, chives, or, if you must, salt. Or try topping it with Parmesan or mozzarella cheese. One cup of sliced raw zucchini contains just 16 calories.

Squash blossoms, which are also edible, may be eaten raw or cooked. Male blossoms are usually harvested unless you are trying to reduce fruit production. The male blossom is trimmer, with a thinner stem; the female blossom has a thick stem. You can batter and fry the blossoms in olive oil. Tiny squash with the blossoms attached can also be harvested and used in recipes.

For more information on summer squash -- varieties, common problems and pest-control solutions, nutritional values, and recipes -- visit the University of Illinois Extension Watch Your Garden Grow Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/index.html.

Zucchini recipe

What should you do with an eight- to 12-inch-long zucchini? Make zucchini bread. Here's the recipe:

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups coarsely shredded zucchini squash, lightly packed

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease or spray nine-by-five-by-three-inch loaf pan. Mix dry ingredients, except sugar. Beat egg whites until frothy. Add sugar, oil, and vanilla. Continue beating for 3 minutes. Stir in zucchini; mix lightly. Add dry ingredients. Mix just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour into loaf pan. Bake 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on rack. Remove from pan after 10 minutes.

To serve: Cut into 18 slices about a half-inch thick.

Nutritional value (per slice): 115 calories, 3 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 0 cholesterol, 93 mg sodium. Exchanges: One carbohydrate, one fat. (Source: USDA)

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