Hear the words “Sonoma” and “race” in the same sentence and most will think of Sonoma Raceway — home to nascar, vintage car rallies, and the IndyCar Grand Prix coming up this weekend.
But say those same words to a local kid, the young at heart, or a neighborhood gardener nursing a vegetable bed replete with a bumper crop of summer squash, and the correlation will likely be an entirely different one.
The Sonoma Zucchini Races, now in their 26th year, offer a challenge that many around here find it difficult to refuse — the opportunity to transform the best of their late-season summer squash into fashionable locomotives, then send them hurtling down a ramp before a crowd of spectators. The competition is being held twice this year, the first (shown here) took place at the Sebastiani Winery on the first Friday evening in August, the next is scheduled for this coming Tuesday night at our weekly farmers’ market on the Sonoma Plaza. The event features a contest in two parts, the first based on the creativity of the “car” design, the second on their faculty for speed.
Gage entered this dandy he nicknamed “Wide Load,” featuring a compact, dark green zucchini expertly secured to the back of his miniature Ford pick-up truck.
He was really quite proud of his creation, even presenting it with mock humility to the neighbors, before we set off for Sebastiani Winery where the competition is now held. Once we arrived at the winery lawn and he caught a glimpse of some of the other entrants, however, his confidence took a nose dive. He furtively set his car atop the small racers table and side-stepped away while whistling in the air, quick to disassociate himself with what had suddenly become a regretably simple contraption. Indeed, you wouldn’t believe the lengths some ardent gardeners (and probably a few impassioned produce section shoppers) will go to in the effort to make the choicest zucchini they can find both handsome and swift.
There was a flamingo-driven princess carriage and a polka-dotted army jeep with zucchini in drag,
a chauffeured baby blue Bentley with cherry tomato-head zucchini people, and a zucchini-mastered high-octane antique car with contraband scooter wheels.
There were also caterpillars, monster trucks, surfboards, flatbeds, and butterflies — more than 2 dozen entrants of every shape and size.
Sonoma folks truly go all out with the construction of their “cars” for this annual challenge, especially knowing that as much weight is now given to creativity as to alacrity. Judges perused the cars for unique design and off-beat construction prior to the race (especially since many of the cars seem to disassemble on their way down the ramp). They tended to prefer racers like those (see above left) that made the most of each squashes natural shape — peculiar contortions that can really only be wrought in home gardens. But it was this Woody-topped yellow squash farmer truck at right, with its flatbed trailer toting a quartet of green zucchinis (shown above), that stole Best of Show.
The actual race makes up the second part of the challenge, pitting 4 racers of the same size group against one another, then finishing with a grand prix incorporating the winners of each heat. Zucchini racers which featured large wheels and long bodies seemed to do the best. Monster truck tires and compact discs made a popular and surprisingly swift base upon which to navigate the steep ramp.
The title of Grand Champion went to the red antique car redux above, which relied on the weight of its metal frame and swift scooter wheels for indomitable speed.
Now, as we all know, relegating your summer squash to race car status is not the only thing you can do with a bumper crop. Since each springtime zucchini seedling seems to produce more than a few bushels of squash come August, zucchini dishes tend to make up a good part of our weekly menu around this time of year. I cook up a lot of zucchini “spaghetti” since it’s so easy to make but, especially when my squashes get really big like this one, my go-to favorite is always lasagna. I employ my mandoline or a sharp knife to slice only the meaty part of each zucchini into thin, lasagna noodle-like strips, then use them in addition to (or as a substitute for) the actual pasta. I’ll often incorporate a turkey bolognese (as in the recipe below), but am just as likely to keep it vegetarian by incorporating a chunky tomato sauce instead of meaty bolognese and adding garlicky steamed spinach mixed with ricotta as an extra layer.
This recipe for Zucchini Lasagna with Turkey Bolognese is my kids’ favorite and was even well received by students who ordered it from Country Lunch Box (many of whom would not regularly touch zucchini with a 10-foot pole). My nephew proclaimed it “The Best Lasagna” he had ever tasted, (although I think I made that one with ground beef). In any case, you can swap out the turkey for beef, or fiddle with the layers in any way you think your family might like. Just stick with the meaty part of the zucchini, avoiding the seedy center which can be mushy when baked.
Finally, make sure to top your casserole with a creamy layer of béchamel and nicely browned mozzarella cheese. It will smell and look great when you take it from the oven, and even confirmed zucchini-abstainers may be willing to take a bite.
Zucchini Lasagna with Turkey Bolognese
1/4 cup unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk, heated until steaming
3 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
1 1/4 lb. ground turkey
1 jar (about 24 oz.) tomato or marinara sauce
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
2 lbs. zucchini
1/2 package (about 4 oz.) no-boil lasagna noodles
1 container (14 oz.) ricotta cheese
4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese (about 1 cup)
Make the Bechamel: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the heated milk. Continue to cook, stirring often, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in Parmesan until melted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Make the Bolognese: Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute longer. Add the ground turkey and cook, stirring to break up the meat, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Pour off the fat. Stir in the tomatoes and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and dried basil. Bring to a simmer and simmer, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
While the sauce is simmering, cut the zucchini. Using a sharp knife or mandoline fitted with a slicing blade, cut the zucchini lengthwise into thin strips, stopping to rotate each squash when you reach its seedy center. Reserve the centers for another use. Set the zucchini “noodles” aside.
Preheat oven to 375o. Lightly oil a 9 x 13″ baking dish. To assemble the lasagna, spread a thin layer of bolognese over the dish bottom. Using each remaining ingredient (except the mozzarella) twice in the layering of the lasagna, top the bolognese with even layers of pasta, béchamel, zucchini, bolognese, ricotta, pasta, bolognese, ricotta and zucchini. Top the zucchini evenly with the remaining béchamel, then sprinkle evenly with the mozzarella.
Bake until pasta is tender and cheese is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool for about 5 minutes, then serve hot.