Courgettes or zucchini are small, immature marrows, also known as summer squashes from the Cucurbita pepo family. Most have dark green, shiny skins but they can also be yellow or lime green, depending on the variety sown. The flowers are edible and can be thrown on top of a salad, soup or shredded into corn fritters. In a culinary context, courgettes are described as a vegetable but botanically speaking they are fruits, a type of botanical berry, being the swollen ovary of a courgette flower. Courgettes are known as zucchini in the US, Australia and Germany. ‘Courgette’ is a French loan word commonly used in Belgium, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and South Africa. A huge courgette is called a marrow in the UK and small harvested courgettes are referred to as ‘baby marrows’ in South Africa.
The courgettes ancestors originated from the Americas, perhaps Mexico, about 7000 years ago. Archaeologists traced the development of this fruit from the giant pumpkin between 7000 to 5500 BCE. It is also believed to have been a part of the ancient pre-Columbian food trio: beans, maize and squat – the ‘Three Sisters’. It is believed that it was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus about 500 years ago. The variety of squash that became the courgette we know today was developed in Italy during perhaps the 19th century near Milan (early varieties included the names of nearby cities in their titles). The first records of zucchini in the United States date to the early 1920s. It was brought over by Italian immigrants and probably first cultivated in California. A 1928 report on vegetables grown in New York State treats ‘Zucchini’ as one among 60 cultivated varieties of cucurbits. Today, the courgette is a recognisable crop across the world, appearing in salads, pasta dishes, a secret ingredient for cakes and bread and plenty more.
Courgettes are the perfect summer crop to feed a hungry family. The fruit grows quickly and abundantly. You can harvest them as babies or leave them to make huge marrows (I prefer to harvest them small as they are less tough and the encourages production and reduces the risk of rotting). It is very trendy to pick them with the flowers still intact and to eat those too. I must admit, I have not tried that. Apparently they have a peppery taste.
Last year I grew ‘Best of British’. It was a lovely dark green, small and delicate, produced well and most importantly was delicious. This year I have tried out ‘Defender’, highly recommended in the gardening world, mostly because I did struggle with powdery mildew towards the end of the harvest season and it ruined the last of them. So far ‘Defender’ has lived up to all expectations. It has produced very well, even better than last year’s harvest, and I have not had a bitter skin yet. They are delicious and look gorgeous and I am very proud of them, even if I have a few too many to stand.
To get ahead of the season, I like to start my courgettes off under cover in March in tall yoghurt pots filled with potting compost indoors in a warm bedroom (averaging around 20C). Plant the seed 1.5cm (1/2 inch) in the compost. Keep it well watered and when germination begins, make sure it gets plenty of light during the day. Once the third leaves have grown, I move them onto a slightly cooler room to start hardening them off. It is best to wait until the frosts are over before attempting to plant them out. It was very difficult for me this year as the courgettes were desperate to go in the ground and we were still getting frost attacks in May. I therefore started to plant them out under double fleece. Even if you plant them out and there are no more frosts, I would still recommend investing in some fleece to use as shade from the sun and protection from the wind – courgette plants may thrive later on but they are delicate to change like all cucurbits. Plant them out about 60cm apart in soil that has been fed with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch. Courgettes are very hungry plants. I update my feeding and mulch every couple of weeks if I can manage it to give them a boost. A fortnightly comfrey feed is the alternative. Make sure they are well-watered to prevent a bitter skin developing on the fruit but try not to soak the leaves, go straight for the stem and roots. Sprinkling the leaves with water increases the likelihood of powdery mildew. Courgettes can be harvested from perhaps late June or early July through to October if you keep picking, survive disease and the frosts keep away. As far as storing is concerned, unfortunately if you have a glut you can’t freeze them due to the high water content. Giving excess away and looking out for recipes that use a lot of courgettes in them is your only saviour, as well as perhaps a chutney recipe?
There are not many pests that should attack courgette plants. If you start them off indoors and them protect them when they are first planted out them slugs and snails should be kept off them – they will not be interested in them or the fruit once they have grown to a good, large size. The most problematic thing with courgettes is the variety of viruses and mildews that can strike them, the same as any cucurbit plant. My gran’s courgettes always seem to get Cucumber Mosaic Virus which is pretty nasty. It is a common plant virus that causes a wide range of symptoms, especially yellow mottling, distortion and stunting. Apart from cucumbers and other cucurbits, it also attacks spinach, lettuce and celery and many flowers, especially lilies, delphiniums, primulas and daphnes. You may see the following symptoms: yellowish patches or green and yellow mottling on leaves, leaves curl downwards and are distorted and reduced in size, plants become stunted due to a shortening of the internodes (lengths of stem between leaves), there is a reduction in yields and distorted fruit and in the flowers white streaks known as ‘breaks’ appear.
Ours got powdery mildew last year which I understand is difficult to avoid completely. Just like potatoes and blight, it always seems to come around, you just want to put it off for as long as possible. Powdery mildew is a common disease of cucurbits under field and greenhouse conditions in most areas of the world. Although all cucurbits are susceptible, symptoms are less common on cucumber and melon because many commercial cultivars have resistance. Premature senescence of infected leaves can result in reduced quality because fruit become sunburnt or ripen prematurely or incompletely. White, powdery fungal growth develops on both leaf surfaces, petioles, and stems. This growth is primarily asexual spores called conidia that usually develops first on crown leaves, on shaded lower leaves and on leaf under surfaces. Yellow spots may form on upper leaf surfaces opposite powdery mildew colonies. The infected leaves usually wither and die and the fruit itself will eventually become deformed or production will cease completely.
Courgettes contain significant levels of potassium that control blood pressure and vitamin C to support the immune system. They are also rich in vitamin A and moderate levels of B vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous. Courgette skins are high in soluble fibre. They are rich in poly-phenolic antioxidants like carotenes, lutein and zea-xanthin, reducing oxygen-derived free radicals.
You can boil, roast, grill, grate, turn into ‘courgettie’ instead of ‘spaghetti’ and use in breads and cakes as it has little flavour and a great texture for blending unnoticeably into dishes. I think that it goes marvellously boiled or grilled with cheddar or brie cheese, something strong and salty. I also think it pairs well with rice and potato dishes. It is also a great accompaniment to a curry with spicy flavours. I offer you a Dahl recipe to use at home. My mum first made it for me a couple of years ago because we had been given some by a neighbour that needed using up. I remembered it this week and tried it out again and loved it. It made my usual Dahl taste sweeter and lighter. When my mum first made it, she grated the vegetables by hand. This time I used my fancy food processor that sped things up but use whatever appliances you like. It is nice and simple and can be served alongside other curries, with just rice, naan, chapatis or on its own. See: cucumber raita with matte paneer curry (Cucumbers) and Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.
Red Lentil, Courgette and Carrot Dahl
– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Ghee or oil, for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1/2 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves (optional) – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4 tsp ground garam masala – 4 medium sized courgettes, finely grated – 4 medium sized carrots, finely grated – 2 large garlic cloves, diced – 250g Red Split lentils – About 400 ml boiling water from the kettle – Rice, chapatti, popadom, naan, or a mixture, to serve (optional) – Freshly cut coriander and parsley, to serve (optional)
- Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
- Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala.
- Grate or chop in a food processor the carrots and courgettes. Stir them into the mixture and turn the heat up to a medium heat, continuing to stir now and then until the courgettes are carrots have been slightly cooked. Add the diced garlic clove, stir in.
- Meanwhile, boil a kettle of water, about 400 ml. Put the red lentils into a glass (or other microwaveable) dish, large enough to hold all of the contents of the Dahl. Scrape the contents of the frying pan into the dish along with the lentils, followed by the boiling water, enough so that it covers all of the ingredients. Stir to combine.
- Place a lid or glass plate over the top of the Dahl and microwave for 10 minutes before checking and stirring. If the lentils are starting to absorb the water, place back int the microwave for another 5 minutes and check again. If it has dried up, add more boiling water and return to the microwave for another five minutes. Continue to heat in the microwave until the water has been absorbed by the lentils but the mixture is not dry and ‘flaky’ looking.
- Serve hot on its own or with rice, an Indian bread, chutneys and freshly picked herbs from your garden, like parsley or coriander, torn and sprinkled over the top and other types of curries. Any left overs can be kept in a container in the fridge and eaten within 3 days or frozen.