Zucchini is another New World plant believed to have been cultivated in what is now Mexico and Guatemala as early as 10,000 years ago. The plants may initially have been grown for their seeds, not their flesh. By the Age of Exploration, squash (from the Narragansett word askutasquash, meaning “green thing eaten raw”, according to Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, in his 1643 publication, A Key to the Language of America ) was one of the “three sisters,” crops central to the Native American diet: maize (corn), beans and squash. The three usually were planted together, with the cornstalk providing support for the climbing beans and shade for the squash, the squash vines providing ground cover that reduced weeds, and the beans producing nitrogen for all three crops.
European explorers soon brought squash to lands bordering the Mediterranean and Africa. Different names appeared as squash spread across Europe. Italians, who are credited with with breeding the vegetable we know today, named it zucchini, a diminutive of zuchina, or gourd. The French, who resisted the vegetable for a long period until they learned that young, small squash have more taste and less water, named it courgette, a diminutive of courge, or gourd. And the English called it vegetable marrow.
In North America, zucchini is referred to as a “summer squash” because it is harvested during the growing season while the skin is soft and the fruit is immature and small. Pattypan and yellow crookneck squashes are also part of this group. Squash harvested later, at maturity, are called “winter squash.” These include butternut, Hubbard, acorn, spaghetti squash and pumpkin, among others. Winter squash are usually cured to harden the skin and increase the length of time that they can be stored in a cool place for later consumption. They generally require a longer cooking time than summer squash.
In addition to the vegetables, squash seeds are edible and can be ground into pastes or pressed into oils, squash shoots, leaves and tendrils can be used as greens, and squash blossoms can be battered and fried.
Related to cucumbers and watermelons, zucchini have a high water content and are low in calories. Look for firm, glossy, unblemished zucchini that feel heavy, and store them in the refrigerator (for up to five days) until you are ready to use them.