Several times in the past couple weeks I’ve observed people contemplating the difference between cucumbers and zucchini. They seem worlds apart to me, but I can certainly see how they might be confused. Both are young fruits of vines in the Cucurbit family. Cucumbers tend to be juicier and paler, with scores of species growing around the world. The standard, fat “burpless” cuke is sometimes bitter and usually coated with food grade wax at the supermarkets (making them one veggie I routinely peel). Getting more common these days are the little Persians and the thicker, very light green sweet Armenians. I’ll choose these over the burpless any day.
Zucchini are immature fruits of the Cucurbita pepo species of squash. The mature fruit of this species is… yup, the familiar orange pumpkin. Actually, there are hundreds of types that have been bred for the markets, especially as decorative seasonal contributions. What we call winter squash, the pumpkins, acorns, kabochas, butternuts and their kin, are mature fruits of five or six species.
At the table, cukes are crisp to break, crunchy to bite, and juicy to chew. Summer squash are tender, not as refreshing raw, and very adaptable in salads and cooked dishes. The standard green zucchini has gotten fairly bland in recent years. I find the yellow zucchini, crooknecks, pattypans (like little space ships), and the lighter green, almost mottled Mexican squash offer much more flavor.
Look for unusual varieties at farmer’s markets, and ask your farmers if they grow heirloom varieties. The perfectly round eight-balls are totally fun, and the scallops and patty pans are hard to resist. Cut in wedges, steam until tender-crisp, and sprinkle with a pinch or two of dry dill weed. No butter required!