Any way you slice it, this healthy powerhouse of squash is all about easy: easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to use in the kitchen. Zucchini fruit, or squash, is edible at any stage of maturity, but it tastes best when it's young and tender, long before it balloons into a caveman club. Growing your zucchini not only gives you access the fruit at its prime; it also means you can harvest the delicate and delicious yellow flowers of this prolific plant.
Harvesting Zucchini Fruit
There are two things to remember about harvesting zucchini: pick them young and pick them often. If you keep that in mind, you'll never be stuck with overly large, tasteless (and sometimes bitter) squash. You can harvest zucchini at any time without harming the plant.
Generally, it's best to harvest regular zucchini fruit when it's about 5" to 7" long. Harvest round zucchini when it's about the size of a billiard ball -- there's a reason one of the most popular round zucchinis is called "Eight Ball.
If desired, you can harvest them even smaller. Baby zucchini (around 2" to 4" long) are favorites in restaurants and farmer's markets, thanks to their mild, sweet flavor and attractive appearance. You can also harvest small squash while the flower is still attached. A popular way to cook these is to fill the flowers with cheese and batter and fry the whole thing -- fruit and flower -- at once.
Harvesting Zucchini Flowers
Zucchini plants produce both male and female flowers and are pollinated by bees and other insects. The male flowers grow from a slender stem attached to the main plant. Female flowers grow from the end of the fruit. Female flowers tend to be the tastiest, but if you harvest all of them, your plant will have no fruit. Typically, the ideal time to harvest either male or female flowers is just before they fall off the plant naturally. If you want fruit, be careful not to harvest too many flowers of either sex. Growers who harvest flowers for restaurants and markets usually take just the male flowers, leaving one on the plant for every 12 to 15 flowers harvested. This ensures that there will be pollen for the fruit production.
How to Harvest Zucchini
To harvest the squash, it's best to use pruners, scissors or a knife, cutting off the stem about 1" to 2" from the body of the fruit. It's also easy to remove the fruit simply by twisting it; the stem usually breaks right off, but sometimes it doesn't, and you end up breaking the fruit. Also, there's some evidence that twisting off the fruit can lead to root damage to the plant.
To harvest male flowers, cut off the stem an inch or two below the blossom. This gives you something to hold while cooking and prevents damage to the fragile flower. Remove (and discard) the stamen in the center of the flower right away, while the flower is fully open. Otherwise, the petals will close, and you have to perform careful surgery to reach the stamen. Female flowers usually can be pinched off of the fruit, or you can cut them off, being careful not to damage the squash. Again, you can also harvest the flower and its tiny fruit together.
Zucchini of any size is best when it's cooked with a little fat, usually olive oil. One of the simplest dishes is sliced zucchini sautéd in olive oil (perhaps with a little butter and a smashed clove of garlic) and sprinkled with salt. Try your freshly picked zucchini this way and may never go back to other recipes.
Zucchini also roasts well in the oven: Cut it into thin slices lengthwise (a mandoline is best for this) or long wedges and brush all sides with olive oil. Lay out the pieces individually on a cookie sheet and bake at 400° to 425°F until the flesh begins to caramelize. Flip as needed to cook all sides.
The most popular way to cook zucchini flowers is to stuff the blossoms with ricotta or goat cheese (some folks like cream cheese, too), batter them in a simple batter and fry them in olive oil, either in a sauté pan or deep frying in a dutch oven. Zucchini flowers also can be eaten raw.