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When you start prepping a plush zucchini bread or creamy zucchini spaghetti, odds are you give the squash a rinse, then lob off the cap and toss it. But why? Because the recipe says so? Because that’s how you’ve always done it? Not only are those zucchini tops edible, they’re delicious, and just as versatile as the rest of the vegetable.
In an era of low-waste cooking, chefs and home cooks are using more and more produce scraps destined for the trash or compost bin. Swiss chard and kale stems transform into silky pestos. Potato peelings can be fried into a salty snack. Grated broccoli stems are reborn as cheesy tots. And wilty herbs can be cooked and called jam.
Likewise, you can repurpose the crowns of just about any medium to large summer squash, like plump cousa, striped costata romanesco, bi-colored zephyrs, and golden-hued crooknecks. I’ve found that the fresher the squash, the more tender the stem. If you have access to vegetables from a garden or are able to swing by a local farmers market, that’s ideal. That said, supermarket zucchini work great too.
Here are five ways to get the most out of summer squash tops:
Boil, then drown in olive oil.
In season four of PBS’s Mind of a Chef, American chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton remembers an aha moment during restaurant service: “That looks perfectly good,” she thought, watching zucchini tops go to waste. “I would eat this.” This became an aha moment for me too, a reminder that just because something is typically tossed doesn’t mean it should be. Instead:
Bring a small saucepan of abundantly salted water to a boil. The tip of the stem might be dried out; trim and discard that brown sliver, then slice the top off a whole zucchini including about 1/2″ of flesh. Repeat with however many zucchini you have. Add the tops to the water. Gently boil until they’re easily pierced with a knife and the cut side has lost its opaqueness, 8–15 minutes depending on the size. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cooked tops and transfer them to a shallow bowl. Finish with a generous pour of extra-virgin olive oil.
Or boil, then dress up with whatever’s around.
The beauty of Hamilton’s version is its simplicity, but also in the squash’s ability to soak up the olive oil. To put your own spin on this, check your fridge and pantry. What do you have around? The sweetness of summer squash craves three things: fat, acid, and texture. Extra-virgin olive oil is always within my reach, but another go-to is a spoonful of chili crisp. The acid component can come in many forms, from yogurt and kefir (which bring fat too) to vinegar and citrus juice. Finally, garnish with something crispity-crunchity to contrast the tender zucchini. Some favorite combinations: