I ALWAYS THOUGHT zucchini was an Italian neighborhood where I grew up everyone called it an Italian vegetable, and it was only te Italian greengrocer who sold zucchini until about 20 years ago. But it is not Italian at all; the zucchini, a kind of squach, is genuine native American, as I found out recently in a book on gardening.

Apparently all members of the squash family are natives of the North American continent. Come to think of it, I do remember learning in grade school that the Aztecs and other Indian tribes planted beans and squash between their rows of corn. And early explorers took the seeds back with them along with dry ears of corn and tomatoes.

Cliff dwellers of the American Southwest were eating squash as long ago as 2000 B.C. Around campfires, archeologists have found seeds and rinds that are nearly 4,000 years old. The squash blossom became a symbol of fertility in the art of these Indians. Even today the symbol appears in their painting and jewelry.

It seems quite appropriate that the squash blossom should symbolize fertility, for there is no more productive plant in the garden. Just ask any gardener who has planted more than two zucchini vines. People don't know the meaning of abundance until they've grown zucchini. And being a good neighbor is never refusing to take in some.

It's no wonder then that new recipes using zucchini are greeted with warmth and appreciation.

Zucchini, also known as summer squash, is called vegetable marrow in England and courgette in France. It is low in calories, about 40 per eight-ounce serving, and relatively low in vitamins and minerals, about 700 units of vitamin A, with a scattering of B vitamins and 400 milligrams of potassium. Zucchini is 94.6 percent water. Most of the vitamins are in the skin so it's best not to peel zucchini.

If you grow your own zucchini, be sure to pick them before they grow too large. Six to eight inches is the best size for most varieties. When zucchini grow larger, the skin becomes tough and dull and the seeds begin to harden, making for unpleasant eating. Try to eat zucchini within three or four days of picking, or it may become bitter. Zucchini grown without adequate water may also become bitter. In France, zucchini is picked when it's still finger-size and very tender. These tiny courgettes are saute'ed whole in butter and are prized the way tiny carrots are.

Picking zucchini before they become too large is sometimes easier said than done. Just recently I stripped my plants of even the smallest zucchini. Four and a half days later, I found six giants well beyond the size I recommend. The zucchini had grown at a rate of three inches a day. Should that happen to you, cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Grate the zucchini for fritters or stuff and bake.

If you buy your zucchini, buy only those that are less than 8 inches long and whose skins are very shiny. Soft withered ends indicate an old and bitter vegetable. If you find large zucchini, about 12 inches long and quite thick, at a roadside vegetable stand, and the price is really low, it may be worth shredding them for later use. During the winter the price of zucchini may go as high as 89 cents a pound, and some favorite recipes are not feasible unless you have some frozen.

Yes, zucchini can be frozen. Since my own family doesn't like watery, limp zucchini, I had given up on freezing them long ago. But a tip from my sister, who grows mountains of zucchini out in New Mexico, set me on the right track. Just grate fresh zucchini and measure out the amount you usually use in recipes, say 2 cups, and bag and freeze them. When you use them, don't thaw. Just break the pieces apart and stir into the batter. I've used this method for quiche, fritters and bread. It's not quite as good as fresh, but not bad either.

Zucchini may be used in salads both cooked and raw. To use them cooked, just boil the whole squash until tender, then drain and chill before cutting.

My own best use for zucchini is as a replacement for noodles and spaghetti. I use a special device called a mandoline to cut the zucchini in long julienne strips. Using the zucchini in place of noodles not only saves calories, it adds a pleasant crunch. Zucchini works well with beef stroganoff, goulash, clam sauce and plain old spaghetti sauce. I also like to combine my zucchini noodles with a shrimp and basil sauce. When using the zucchini this way it is essential to cook them very lightly in a little butter. They must just begin to soften from the heat. ZUCCHINI CHEESE CASSEROLE (6 servings)

6 to 8 6-inch zucchini

Salt and pepper to taste

2 sticks butter

3/4 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

1 cup sour cream

1/4 cup fresh chives (substitute green part of scallion)

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup parmesan cheese

Place the zucchini in a large pot of boiling water and cook until they are tender to the touch of a fork, about 12 minutes. Drain and slice in 1-inch-thick pieces. Place the zucchini in a 2-quart casserole and season with salt and pepper, remembering that the cheeses and butter will also add salt. Melt 1 stick of butter and mix it with the cheddar, sour cream and chives. Spoon this over the zucchini. Melt the other stick of butter and saute' the bread crumbs in it. Cool a little and add the parmesan. Sprinkle this mixture over the casserole. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Note: This may be turned into a delicious main dish by placing 4 cups of diced cooked chicken over the zucchini and then topping with the cheese and bread crumb mixtures. ZUCCHINI NICOISE (6 servings)

4 8-inch zucchini

4 red ripe tomatoes

2 green peppers

1 sweet red onion

Lettuce leaves

1 cup Italian black olives

4 hard-boiled eggs Dressing

3 cloves garlic mashed

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons dijon mustard

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

3/4 cup olive oil

Drop the zucchini in a large pot of boiling water. Boil for 12 minutes or until they are just barely tender when pierced by a fork. Drain and chill. Quarter the zucchini and cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large bowl. Cut the tomatoes in wedges, cut the peppers in 1-inch squares, slice the onion in rings. Add them to the bowl with the zucchini. Make the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together. Pour over the vegetables and toss well. Let marinate for at least 1 hour. Serve on a salad plate lined with a lettuce leaf and garnish with quartered hard-boiled eggs and black olives. ZUCCHINI AND SCALLION QUICHE (6 servings) Crust:

11/2 cups flour

1 stick butter or margarine (stick type, cold)

3 tablespoons water Filling:

4 large eggs

Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

2 cups half-and-half or light cream

2 cups shredded zucchini

1/4 cup minced scallions

1 cup parmesan cheese

To make the crust, use a pastry blender to cut the butter or margarine into the flour, add the water and toss well with a fork. Form the dough into a ball. Roll out to fit a 9-inch springform pan or deep quiche pan. Fit the dough into the pan. Line with waxed paper and fill with dry beans to hold the pastry in place. Bake the crust for 18 minutes at 425 degrees.

While the crust is baking, beat the eggs with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. I use about a teaspoon of salt and a quarter teaspoon each of pepper and nutmeg. Heat the cream in a saucepan until it simmers. Whisk the hot cream into the eggs. This helps the quiche to set and cuts baking time. Add the zucchini, scallions and parmesan to the egg mixture. Remove the beans from the crust by lifting out the waxed paper. Pour in the filling. Place on a cookie sheet to catch drips. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 10 minutes or until the top is slightly puffed. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting.ZUCCHINI ZORBA (6 servings)

3 8-inch zucchini

1/2 cup flour

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups bread crumbs

3 slices white bread

1/2 cup oil

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 large onion, minced

1 clove garlic, mashed

11/2 pounds very lean ground beef or lamb

1 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

3 large tomatoes, seeded and diced

1 cup tomato sauce

1 pound Monterey Jack cheese

Cut each zucchini in four slabs, lengthwise. Each should be about 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle salt on the slices and place in a colander. After 1 hour, pat the zucchini dry and dip each slice in flour. Place the eggs in a shallow bowl and dip each slice in egg, then in bread crumbs. Set aside until the meat is ready. Trim the crusts from the bread and then cut in 1/4-inch dice. Heat 1/2 cup oil in a small frying pan and add the sliced clove of garlic. When the garlic is brown, remove it and add the bread cubes. Fry them until golden and crisp. Set aside. If any oil remains, pour it in a large saute' pan. Saute' the onion and mashed garlic in the oil until soft. Add the beef or lamb and saute' until it changes color. Add the oregano, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Toss well. Add the chopped tomato and tomato sauce and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. When the meat is done, deep-fry the zucchini slices until crisp and golden. Arrange the slices in the bottom of a heatproof baking dish, overlapping each pair of slices. Mound the meat on the slices. Sprinkle with bread cubes and top with shredded Monterey Jack cheese. Place under a broiler to melt the cheese. ZUCCHINI WITH SHRIMP AND BASIL SAUCE (4 servings)

3 8-inch zucchini, cut in julienne strips

2 tablespoons butter

11/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tomatoes, peeled and seeded

1 large clove garlic, mashed

1 cup fresh basil leaves

1 stick butter

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons white wine

Salt to taste

Use a mandoline or Japanese benriner to cut the zucchini in long julienne strips. Lightly saute' in 2 tablespoon of butter. Set aside. Peel and devein the shrimp and set aside. Peel and seed the tomato and cut in small dice. Place the mashed clove of garlic in a food processor with the basil leaves. Process until finely chopped, using the steel blade. If you don't have a food processor, wilt the basil in a frying pan with several tablespoons of water, then press through a sieve. Add the butter to the food processor and work to a smooth green paste.

At serving time, put the basil butter in a saute' pan over medium heat. Add to it the pepper and white wine. When the butter is melted and bubbling add the shrimp. Saute' until pink on all sides. Add the tomato and cook 30 seconds. Add the saute'ed zucchini and toss well. When the zucchini just begins to wilt it is ready to serve. ZUCCHINI COCKTAIL BITES

1/2 cup vegetable oil

4 large eggs

3 8-inch zucchini, shredded

4 scallions, minced

1/2 cup parsley, chopped

1 cup parmesan cheese

2 cloves garlic, mashed

1 teaspoon oregano

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup self rising flour

Beat the oil and eggs in a small bowl. In a larger bowl combine the remaining ingredients. Toss well. Add the egg mixture and stir. The mixture will be quite thick. Grease and flour a jelly roll pan (10-by-15-inches). Spread the mixture in the pan and bake in a 375-degree oven for 25 minutes. Cut in 11/2-inch squares and serve hot or lukewarm. HOT ZUCCHINI DIP

2 pounds small zucchini, diced very fine

1 large onion, minced fine

2 green peppers, seeded and minced

2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic, mashed

1 tablespoon dried basil

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Have all of the vegetables minced to a uniformly small dice. Don't attempt to do this in a food processor or your dip will not be attractive. Heat the olive oil in a large saute' pan or casserole. Add the garlic and onion and saute' until soft. Add the seasonings. I use lots of pepper, but do it to your taste. Add the green pepper and saute' until soft, add the zucchini and saute' until it begins to lose its juices. Add the tomato and simmer the mixture until the vegetables are soft and about half of the juice has evaporated. At serving time, place in a chafing dish and sprinkle on the parmesan cheese. I serve this with corn chips or tortilla chips. ZUCCHINI TOAST

2 cups zucchini, shredded

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup grated romano cheese

1 cup mayonnaise

1 clove garlic, mashed

1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

4 scallions, minced

1 loaf very thin sandwich bread

Mix the zucchini with the salt and let sit for an hour. Place the zucchini in a linen towel and squeeze dry. Mix the zucchini with all of the ingredients except the bread. Spread the mixture on the bread rather thickly, like peanut butter. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 12 minutes. Cut from corner to corner to make 4 triangles. Serve hot. May be reheated in a hot oven.