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Hulking zucchini stage takeover of family dining


The gang of six is ruling my life. They are big, thick guys. Their existence is evidence of negligence, that somebody wasn't watching them when he should have.

They are the zucchini gang, and they have me under their sway. Ever since they rolled in from the garden they have dominated my thoughts and most family meals.

I blame myself. I knew you are not supposed to let zucchini grow to be the size of baseball bats. You are supposed to pick them when they are small and petite, at least for zucchini. That would be when they are the size of billy clubs.

But I am not a diligent gardener. Once I get to the garden I toil, but getting there is a battle. I blame my inconsistent work habits on the fact that the garden plot is in Druid Hill Park, several blocks from my home. My plot is part of a Baltimore Recreation and Parks department horticultural program that rents some 500 garden plots in seven sites around the city. But the truth is that if the garden were in my back yard, I suspect I would still only get down and dirty about once a week. Once a spurt worker, always a spurt worker.

Besides, vegetables grow faster when the gardener isn't paying attention. You go on vacation, for instance, and your garden goes into high gear.

Finally, there is the element of surprise. When you show up at your garden as infrequently as I do, nature surprises you on each visit. The other day, for instance, the gang of six was at the garden, hiding.

I spotted a dark green hulk in the middle of the zucchini plant, underneath the leaves. Reaching down through the leaves, I felt something big and thick and heavy. It took both of my hands to lift it. It felt like either a massive zucchini or somebody's leg. It turned out to be a big, brutish-looking gourd and it wasn't alone. There were five other big guys down there as well.

There was a time, I think, when growing big zucchini was the rage. It was also the time when the prevailing wisdom was that the best way to get rid of these guys was to cover them in wrapping paper, leave them on your car seat and hope somebody would steal them.

But nowadays, growing big zucchini is considered declasse. Carrying around big zucchini is like showing up at work in wrinkled clothes with a three-day beard. It is a sign that things are slipping.

Once they got to my house, the gang of six stretched out in the back yard on a table. I hurried in the house and began doing what thousands of other gardeners had done before me. Namely searching for new dishes that would attack the old problem of having a stockpile of zucchini.

As I looked through cookbooks, another gang, this one composed of four 10-to-11-year-old boys, tangled with the zucchini. The boys immediately picked up the zucchini and pretended the vegetables were machine guns, proving my long-held belief that prison inmates and young boys can fashion weapons out of anything.

I found one promising recipe in Molly O'Neill's "A Well-Seasoned Feast" (Viking, $26). It bathed the zucchini in a mixture of wine, olive oil, parsley, thyme, and kosher salt. Actually the recipe called for small zucchini. But I used one of the big guys and sliced it very thin.

It was pretty good. I fixed it twice. My wife liked it. The 14-year-old said it was OK. The 10-year-old wouldn't eat it. But after supper the other night, he summed up the dish's overall effect on the household's struggle with the gang of six: "That is two down, and four to go."

Zucchini Gratin With Parsley and Thyme

Serves 4

3 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4 -inch rounds

2 1/4 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1 tablespoon white wine

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped Italian parsley

1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

freshly ground pepper to taste

Sprinkle zucchini rounds with 2 teaspoons of salt, place in a sieve, and let drain for 1 hour, pat dry.

Heat oven to 350.

Arrange zucchini in concentric circles in a 10-inch quiche dish, overlapping the pieces slightly. Whisk together the wine, oil, parsley, thyme, remaining salt and pepper and spoon mixture over zucchini. Bake until zucchini is tender, but not too soft, about 25 minutes. Divide among 4 plates and serve immediately.

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