Quick Breads: A Solution To Summer's Bounty
Unlike practically every gardener since Adam, I have just experienced a zucchini failure. The squash beetles romped all over my zucchini bed, which is a nasty habit they have around August. Six happy weeks of zucchini fritters and stir-fries ended with gray, wilted vines and rotting foliage. Well, it was nice while it lasted.
The garden season will end soon enough, in a fanfare of potatoes and squashes and pumpkins and gourds. As the weather gets colder, they get starchier and more like breads themselves, so it takes less and less effort — a little egg and sugar to sweeten and bind them — to get them to shine in a loaf pan.
Fortunately, zucchini in late summer is one thing a person can count on, even if she's just had her shins kicked by a beetle army. All I have to do is trot over to the nearest farm stand and drop a quarter in the box. Or I can ask a friend, preferably a newbie gardener whose soil is still unknown to pests. Or I can just leave my car unlocked in the parking lot at the end of the next farmers market and see what happens. One way or another, there will be zucchini.
For most people, there will be too much zucchini, which is why at this time of year, it's good to remember that the zucchini is a baking-friendly vegetable (OK, well, technically a fruit if you want to be strictly botanical about it). You might not feel like stuffing it, saucing it or frying it. But even at your laziest, you probably wouldn't mind grating it into a simple batter and throwing it in a loaf pan for a bit less than an hour. What's more, the afternoons are finally cool enough that turning on the oven is like greeting an old friend.
Zucchini bread is one of those breads that's practically impossible to get wrong. Like its cousin the banana bread, it comes together in no time, and if you don't have a mixer on hand, you can just use a wooden spoon and some elbow grease. It's as happy as an afterschool snack as it is at a bake sale or a church coffee klatch. Zucchini bread has no pretensions. It's plain and good, in a down-to-earth, hey-I'm-just-a-vegetable-at-heart sort of way.
It's also a quick bread, which simply means there's no slow-fermenting yeast to watch over all day like a fussy baby, while it eats and burps carbon dioxide. In a quick bread, any leavening happens quickly (hence the name), with baking powder or baking soda or both. And while an hour may not be the definition of quickness in fast-paced times, it's still the blink of a baker's eye.
Why do gourd and root vegetables work so well in breads? I think it's their dense texture, which when grated slowly releases moisture and earthy flavor into the surrounding crumb as it bakes. Whatever the reason, I can tell you that what works for zucchini will work for carrots, too. You already know you can make carrot cake and carrot muffins. In fact, I've always said that muffins are merely cake in disguise. Quick bread is basically a muffin in a loaf pan.
You may well ask, "Who needs to use up carrots? Nobody has too many carrots lying around." Well, I do. I've got carrots this year the way other people have zucchini. While the squash beetles partied and raved across the way, my carrots quietly grew, delving deep into the compost, fattening on their drip irrigation. Some of the carrots I lifted last week were 10 inches long, thicker than a broom handle, and crisp enough to spray juice on my glasses when I snapped them. It was a good-enough consolation prize to make me forget the beetles.
The garden season will end soon enough, in a fanfare of potatoes and squashes and pumpkins and gourds. As the weather gets colder, they get starchier and more like breads themselves, so it takes less and less effort — a little egg and sugar to sweeten and bind them — to get them to shine in a loaf pan. A pumpkin is nothing but a zucchini's older cousin once removed, tougher-skinned but sweet on the inside. By the time you taste your first fall pumpkin bread, the glut of August zucchini and the dilemma of what to do with them are distant memories, indeed.
Still, hope forever triumphs over experience in my garden. So I'm setting out a few young zucchini seedlings even now, as summer turns her back on us and starts to walk away. If I've calculated right, I should be able to harvest exactly once before frost. I'll light the wood stove with the dead vines of last year's garden, nibble my zucchini bread and curl up with next year's seed catalog, where the zucchini are neither too many nor too few, but just right in number.
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