Squash goes upscale

Squash from the garden is delicious but can get tiresome so dress it up to the gourmet level, like this zucchini and pattypan squash showered with herbs. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT)

It begins so optimistically, with dreams of delicate stuffed squash flowers and tender, tiny zucchini. But as the vines run rampant, reality soon sets in. Truth is, zucchini bread loses its charm after the 40th loaf.

What now?

Several chefs have an answer: take the squash deliciously upscale. Put it in Thai curries, elegant salads and basil-flecked gratins.

At Palo Alto, Calif.'s Bistro Elan, Ambjorn Lindskog bakes thinly sliced green and yellow squashes in a ring mold, mixing in a little Gruyere and a dab of pesto or salsa verde for added flavor. Sprinkle in fresh herbs or breadcrumbs, tossed in browned, melted butter. Just don't overpower the zucchini, he says, "You want it to be a zucchini, not something else."

Zucchini also makes a marvelous base for salads. Lindskog sautes paper thin slices with garlic, then mixes them with corn kernels and fresh fava or cranberry beans. Dress the mixture with shallots, olive oil and lemon juice, and serve it at room temperature, perhaps with a little pancetta.

"That," he says, "could be a nice little salad."

Farina Kingsley, too, has some ideas for raising zucchini's profile. The co-author of "Organic Marin," a new cookbook that celebrates Marin's farmers and chefs, slices zucchini into delicate ribbons, and then tosses it with a lemony vinaigrette, fresh tomatoes, feta and olives. She also suggests trying other combinations, such as baby arugula and shaved Parmesan.

The trick, say both Kingsley and Deborah Madison, founder of Greens, San Francisco's upscale vegetarian restaurant, is to control zucchini from the start.

"Practice zucchini birth control with the flowers," says Madison.

Pluck the flowers -- they're delicious anyway -- and you'll reduce your vines' output. Then harvest the zucchini when they're small and the quantity is manageable.

"I cook a lot of Asian stir fries and vegetarian curries with zucchini," says Kingsley, who teaches at San Francisco's Tante Marie Cooking School. "The zucchini really soaks up wonderful curry flavors."

Kingsley's green shrimp and zucchini curry takes just 20 minutes to prepare, and her zucchini chips, coated with a light Panko and Parmesan crumb, can be either a grab-and-go snack, or a side dish served with grilled fish or steak.

But sometimes the simplest treatments are the most effective. The consensus at the farmer's market at San Jose, Calif.'s, Santana Row is simple grilling, 5 or 6 minutes worth. Michelle Rizzi, who writes the Yankee Pier blog for Santana Row, suggests tucking the tendrils and flowers into omelets or soups. And Madison's favorite zucchini recipes -- which are sprinkled through her cookbook, "Local Flavors" -- are also the most straightforward.

Madison cooks zucchini slowly, thinly sliced, in a little olive oil, then lavishes fresh herbs over the surface.

"The zucchini gets golden," she says, "and the more you cook it, the more its real flavor comes out. I put a shower of herbs on it and lots of other little things -- a little Parmesan, dabs of goat cheese, crisped bread crumbs to give it a little bit of a crunch. I make it all the time without even looking at a recipe, and serve it with a yogurt sauce with garlic and dill."

Or she'll slice zephyr zucchini -- they're yellow with a green tip -- lengthwise, steam them and serve them on a long platter with torn purple basil leaves, pine nuts and shavings of Parmesan.

But don't stop at classic zucchini, says Madison. Be daring at the farmers market. Look for pale green pattypans, and striated cocozelles, which are about 12 inches long. Seek out ribbed Costata Romanesco, which yield scalloped flower shapes when sliced. They're rich and flavorful, and their flowers are particularly lovely for eating.

"I like to have all different kinds," says Madison. "Cut them into similar lengths and widths, cook them very simply, and have them all together with salsa verde or butter and a little bit of Parmesan. They look so pretty like that."

Green curry shrimp with zucchini