A zucchini bonanza calls for creative cooking
I remember well the time when our garden produced in excess of 300 pounds of zucchini squash by summer's end. That's a whole lot more than a family of four can conveniently consume, particularly when the two younger members profess to ''hating the stuff.''
As a matter of fact, I recall being devious enough to serve zucchini blended up in the ice-cream milkshakes my daughters enjoyed so much. The ruse worked well for several weeks until, overly confident, I included more squash than the flavor of the day could hide. Our daughters made their own shakes from that day on.
This story illustrates two facts about zucchini:
* It produces abundantly from just a few plants.
* Its subtle - some might call it bland - flavor means that it can be used in vastly more ways than is at first apparent. Indeed, a little imagination and the sky's the limit with this vegetable.
In recent years a number of cookbooks designed to deal with excessive quantities of zucchini and summer squash have made it onto the market, the latest and least expensive being ''The Zucchini Cookbook'' by Helen and Emil Dandar ($2.35 postpaid from Sterling Cookbooks, PO Box 16, Penndel, Pa. 19047).
This retired couple, gardeners both and cooks as well, have produced similar booklets in the past. The Dandars eschew the glossy pages and color pictures that look good but shoot up the price. Their aim in the most recent booklet, they say, is to provide so many different ways of enjoying zucchini and its summer-squash relatives that no garden will ''overproduce'' any more.
With 120 recipes, ranging from soups through breads, muffins, cakes, cookies, and main dishes, the booklet goes a long way toward achieving the goal. It even has a recipe for zucchini marmalade, in which the shredded zucchini absorbs its marmalade flavor from some accompanying lemon juice and a little grated orange peel.
My garden has never overproduced zucchini since that season several years ago , partly because I have grown fewer plants, but largely because my wife, a conservative cook as a rule, can become recklessly adventurous with a zucchini in her hand.
It is not generally known, but summer squashes, including zucchini, are botanically more closely related to the pumpkin than to squash - not that that alters the way we grow them.
Zucchini grows best in well-drained soil that is rich in humus. It also likes plenty of sun. Make compost holes in a row every 18 inches by digging out a shovelful of soil and filling it with a shovelful of compost or aged manure. Cover with an inch or two of soil, using the remaining soil to form a dishlike basin around the planting area to prevent any irrigation water from flowing away from the plant.
Sow two seeds in each dish and thin to one plant per hole once they have become established. Allow three feet of growing room between each row. To get a jump on spring, you can start zucchini in peat pots indoors about two weeks before setting out. Harden them off before planting them outdoors.
Another option is to harden them for just a few days and then set them out in the garden. You can do this if you cover the plants with a plastic milk jug that has had the bottom cut out. The slightly cloudy nature of the plastic screens the sun fractionally while at the same time excluding the drying winds. By leaving off the cap, enough air gets in to slowly condition the plants so that they are hardened to both wind and sun by the time their milk-jug enclosure becomes too small for them.
Dust with a little pyretheum if any squash bugs turn up. Rotenone, on the other hand, keeps away the squash borer as long as the powder is dusted on the stems after each rain.
If you see your vines wilting, search for the little hole where the borer has entered in and, using a sharp knife, slit up through the stem until you come across the white grub and can remove it. It often seems amazing how readily the squash recovers from this rough treatment.
Try a second planting of zucchini in mid-July for a crop that comes along after the borer problem is past.