Zucchini is a variety of summer squash commonly used in Italian cooking. Some recipes actually refer to it as "Italian squash." However, other varieties of summer squash are sometimes called Italian squash as well. As with many other food plants, the names for zucchini, summer squash and Italian squash evolved colloquially and are not especially precise.
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Summer vs. Winter Squash
Summer squash varieties include zucchini, patty pans, yellow crookneck and eight ball squash. Zucchini and yellow squash in particular are sometimes referred to as "Italian squash." Summer squash tends to have relatively thin skin and may be eaten either raw or cooked. Winter squash varieties include pumpkins, acorn squash, delicata squash, spaghetti squash and hubbard squash. You should cook them before eating them. They are wonderful in soups and casseroles, or simply roasted and enjoyed with butter or high-quality olive oil.
Italian recipes using squash range from very simple to quite complex. One simple, traditional Italian recipe involves stewing zucchini with olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs, such as parsley or basil. Other Italian squash recipes combine winter squash with tomato sauce and cheese. Some recipes use the flower of the squash plant, or squash blossoms. Zucchini may also be lightly sauteed and tossed with pasta, herbs and cheese; breaded and fried; or tossed with herbs and olive oil and roasted.
Although both the summer and winter squash that we commonly use for cooking are indigenous to the Western hemisphere, they became an integral part of European cooking before growing popular in the United States. The variety of summer squash that we know as zucchini was first grown in Italy sometime during the 18th century. Italian immigrants to the United States carried seeds and began planting zucchini and other squash varieties on American soil during the early 20th century, building profitable agricultural businesses, especially in California.
The English word for zucchini comes from the Italian word "zucca," which means "squash" or "gourd" in Italian. Zucchini simply means "little squash." The important role that Italian cooks and farmers played in breeding and popularizing zucchini explains why the Italian name for it is used interchangeably with summer squash.