Zucchini is a vegetable crop that keeps on giving

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Pumpkin-carving tools work well for carving zucchini into a table centerpiece.

Are you overrun by zucchini? Slice it, grill it, fill it, fry it, bake it, pickle it, grate it, turn it into zoodles. It's the most versatile vegetable. The more you pick, the more the plant produces.

Zucchini is originally native to Mexico, but the squash we know is a variety brought to the U.S. by Italian immigrants. The early varieties, bred in Italy in the 16th century, were round. They were dubbed zucchini from Zucca, meaning pumpkin, and ini, which means small. The elongated version we know was developed near Milan.

The squash really took off in the early 1970s with the age of flower children and their focus on home gardens. Soon, zukes began popping up in seed collections -- Burpee, for example in 1973 -- and in grocery stores. Zucchini cookbooks abounded shortly after.

You can slow down the production by eating the female flowers, identified by a tiny zuke at the base of the blossom, stuffed with cheese or meat and immersed in sauce or fried.

What can you do with zucchini? Eat it, donate it to a food bank, feed it to backyard chickens and rabbits, or have fun with it. Hold a neighborhood contest for the biggest zucchini, or share a potluck of zucchini dishes. Or you can use pumpkin-carving tools to make designs in the outer skin for a centerpiece. Bat a whiffle ball with the giant ones, then save and dry mature seeds for cardinals.

If you have an excess of zucchini, shred it and freeze it. A good use for shredded zucchini is in chocolate zucchini bread. This recipe takes just 15 minutes to prepare and bakes in about 50 minutes. It makes two loaves of 12 slices each.

Here are the ingredients: 2 cups sugar, 1 cup canola oil, 3 large eggs, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract, 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, ½ cup baking cocoa, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon baking powder, 2 cups shredded, peeled zucchini, 1 cup chopped nuts (optional).

Directions: In a large bowl, beat sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla until well blended. Combine flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and baking powder; gradually beat into sugar mixture until blended. Stir in zucchini and nuts.

Transfer to two 8x4 inch loaf pans coated with cooking spray.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks to cool completely.

Here is another low-calorie recipe for Zucchini Tots. Here are the ingredients: 1 cup zucchini, grated, 1 large egg, 1/4 medium onion, diced, 1/4 cup reduced sharp cheddar cheese, grated, 1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs salt & pepper to taste, cooking spray. Directions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray mini muffin tin with cooking spray. Grate zucchini into a clean dish towel. Wring all of the excess water out of the zucchini.

In a medium bowl, combine all of the ingredients and season with salt & pepper to taste. Fill each muffin section to the top, pushing down on the filling with your spoon so it's nice and compacted so they don't fall apart when you take them out of the tin. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes or until the tops are golden. Use a plastic knife or rubber spatula around the edges of each tot to remove them from the muffin tin. Enjoy!

Make the most of your zucchini harvest this summer. Remember, it's good for you, and it's so versatile.

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