What should you be looking for when you're buying zucchini, and what should you do with it once you have it? Taste of Home managing editor Mark Hagen tells Noelle Carter what to do and why you should think beyond another loaf of zucchini bread.

Noelle Carter: Zucchini is one of those summer staples. I can find zucchini in the market, and it ranges from little tiny squash to massive, melon-like vegetables. What should I look for when buying, and how should I store it? How long will it keep?

Mark Hagen Mark Hagen

Mark Hagen: Those little zucchinis are actually your best bet. They tend to be a little bit more fresh. There is a little bit more flavor to them, and if you look at the skins, the skin itself tends to be a little bit nicer. It's more firm and you're likely to find fewer blemishes or soft spots.

There's nothing wrong with those big zucchinis. In fact, you can get a lot of great food out of those zucchinis, but the smaller ones are usually your better bet. They're also easier to store. Speaking of that, don't wash it until you're ready to use it. Take that zucchini, put it in your crisper drawer, and you can keep it there for at least four days. Depending on the size, that might change a little bit. You might be able to go as long as eight days.

NC: Zucchini is one of those vegetables that so often gets a bad rap. Maybe it's just because we've got so much of it over the summer. Do you have some good ideas on how to incorporate it into different recipes, and should I think of using the smaller zucchini differently than I would, say, a larger vegetable?

MH: Let's answer that question first. If you're dealing with a larger one, depending on what you're making, you're probably going to have to get rid of the seeds, just because those seeds are larger, and you may not want to have zucchini seeds in your muffin or in your zucchini bread or whatever it is you're making. Whereas the smaller zucchini, those seeds are really tiny, and they're full of water content, and they're probably just going to get lost in whatever it is you're making.

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As far as making things, I think cooks from coast to coast are just experimenting with all these great ways to use up all that zucchini. They're no longer just making zucchini breads; they're making zucchini chutney, for instance. Just take maybe two pounds--that's about four cups--chopped zucchini, put that in a nice big pot or Dutch oven, and then go ahead and maybe add an apple that you've chopped up, and an onion. Throw in a pepper, and then you're going to do maybe a cup of vinegar. That can be cider vinegar if you'd like, or just regular. Just let that all boil, and you're going to have this wonderful chutney in about 45 minutes. Season that however you'd like. Add some garlic, add some ground cumin, mustard, maybe, but it's going to make this awesome chutney that's great on pork or ham or even chicken breast that you've grilled. That's a simple yet out-of-the-box idea for zucchini.

If you want to go ahead and throw it in a zucchini bread or chocolate cake--you could even use a chocolate cake mix and just toss in a cup of grated zucchini--it's going to boost the nutrition, it's going to really add moisture to that chocolate cake. You can do things traditional and simple, but it's fun to think outside the box, too, like that chutney.

NC: One recipe that you're running in your summer issue of Taste of Home is this recipe for zucchini dessert squares. I went online to your website, and you've got a photo gallery of 16 great dessert recipes.

zucchini Taste of Home recipe: Zucchini Dessert Squares

MH: You're right. At TasteofHome.com, there is a slideshow that teaches you how to use zucchini in desserts, many of which are unique. The zucchini dessert squares that you mentioned are really fun, because you could really serve those to anybody, and they would probably think that they were eating an apple bar. The flavor of zucchini is so mild that once you start combining it with sugar and cinnamon, a little bit of nutmeg, it really does take on the texture, and, really, as funny as it sounds, the flavor of an apple pie, or an apple slab pie in this case.

Another fun way to work some zucchini into your sweets is putting it into some cookies. You can take any cookie recipe, let's say a chocolate chip cookie recipe. You don't really need to change anything. Just stir in one to one and a half cups of grated zucchini into that batter. You're going to have very soft, very moist cookies.

Here's something just to think about: When you're baking with zucchini, or really just even cooking with zucchini, is this a recipe where you're going to need to squeeze the zucchini dry? Many recipes will tell you whether or not you need to squeeze it dry, but if you're just experimenting, think about how much moisture you want in your product. You don't want your cookies, for example, to be falling apart. You don't want them to be almost wet, which they might be if you don't squeeze that zucchini dry before stirring it into your cookie batter. A cake, on the other hand, you do want it to be nice and moist. You might not squeeze that out. Think about that as you're experimenting.

To squeeze or not to squeeze, we'll call it.

[Ed. note: You can find more Taste of Home zucchini recipes here.]

squash medley Taste of Home recipe: Two-Season Squash Medley
Noelle Carter
Noelle Carter is a chef and test kitchen manager at the Los Angeles Times.