Julie O'Hara is a freelance writer and recipe developer in Fort Lauderdale. She has written for Shape, National Geographic Traveler, Relish and Self. You can read her food blog, A Mingling of Tastes, or visit her Web site, julieoharawriter.com.
Ah, summer squash, the blessing and curse of home gardeners — or so I hear.
As the inhabitant of a fifth-floor condo with nary a balcony to grow a container garden, I can only dream of the slew of squash that would spring from my own patch of earth, if I had one.
Along with sweet, jammy strawberries and delightfully ugly heirloom tomatoes, a backyard bounty can yield more squash than you would need to feed a team of vegetarian Olympic soccer players.
Summer squash, in fact, grows so quickly and in such abundance under even the palest of green thumbs, that finding ways to eat it (or friends to hoist it upon) could become a competitive sport.
Zucchini and its kin are the sleeper hits among garden blockbusters such as tomatoes and berries. They may not be greeted with raves when you grill the first harvest of yellow crooknecks, but summer squash have the versatility and easy-going nature to sustain a long, successful run in your kitchen.
So, when I hear the trowel-and-hoe set grousing about "drowning" in zucchini or being "buried alive" by pattypans, I turn red with indignation. As they commiserate wearily over the tedium of frying yet another batch of squash blossoms, I am gnashing my teeth — and getting slightly green with envy. Even gardeners who adore their prolific crops would probably consider me naive, but I can't help wishing for their affliction.
How to explain the spunk and staying power of summer squash in gardens year after year? For starters, this vegetable is not particular. An ancient crop native to North America, it grows happily from East to West during the warm months and may be planted any time after the last frost, from early spring through midsummer. It grows like a bush but doesn't spread like winter squash, which stretches its vines over everything in its path.
Also, summer squash is the ultimate instant gratification of the gardening world, ready for harvest just four to eight days after flowers appear. The most it demands is to be picked before leaving adolescence, when it is most sweet and tender, with small seeds and thin skin. Even if you do happen to blink and miss the moment of consequence, summer squash won't abandon you. Larger specimens can be hollowed out and grated for quick breads or stuffed with a ragu of meat or veggies, with cheese and pine nuts sprinkled on top.
Although circumstances dictate that I buy my summer squash at a market, I bring home an armload to use in different recipes throughout the week. Though I'm guaranteed to find zucchini virtually year-round, this stalwart is all the more appealing when steamy weather dictates lighter dishes packed with summer produce and leafy herbs such as basil and mint.
Now is the time when you can supplement that creamy-fleshed zucchini (occasionally referred to as "vegetable marrow") with yellow crooknecks and petite pattypans in shades of pale green and yellow. If you frequent a good farmers market, many more varieties await in an array of patterns and colors. Look for the globe-shaped or "8-ball" zucchini, for example, which is perfect for stuffing.
If you are used to simply steamed rounds of green and yellow squash, perhaps accompanied by carrots or green beans for a trusty vegetable medley, then you are in for a treat. Summer squash love a quick blast from a hot grill or broiler because they'll cook before going soggy due to their high water content.
Sauteing is another easy way to bring out sweetness. Chop the squash fairly small for fast cooking, and don't be afraid to let it get well browned and slightly caramelized. Turn it into a substantial side dish by tossing with beans or steamed grains, a generous handful of herbs and some flavorful cheese like goat or feta. Add some shredded chicken, and you have a main dish salad, no dressing required.
One of my favorite techniques involves no cooking at all. Take fresh, young zucchini or yellow squash, remove the skin and make thin strips with a sharp vegetable peeler. The delicate squash ribbons have a slightly toothsome texture and mild vegetal flavor that lightens a summery bowl of fettuccine with grape tomatoes, garlic and basil. On their own, dressed sparingly with good olive oil and lemon, they make an easy and very pretty salad.
I suppose a backyard full of dizzyingly productive plants could fill me with the squash ennui that takes hold of some of the home gardeners I envy. However, I have a plan to avoid this sad scenario. I will use my days as a condo-dweller to create new and delicious ways to enjoy all the squash that I will eventually grow right between the orchard and the chicken coop. It's going to be a big backyard.
For this easy side dish, I used zucchini and yellow crooknecks, the two types of summer squash most readily available to me. Add pattypan or any variety to the mix. Quantities are not terribly important here; aim for 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds of squash. The squash-mint-goat cheese combination is also one of my favorite omelet fillings and would make a fine frittata, as well.
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), trimmed and chopped into half-inch pieces
3 small yellow crookneck squash (about 3/4 pound), trimmed and chopped into half-inch pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 (15.5-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed, drained and dried
1/4 cup loosely packed chopped fresh mint
4 ounces goat cheese
Add the olive oil to a large nonstick skillet and heat to medium high. Add all the squash, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until squash is lightly browned and tender (adjust the heat if squash browns too quickly). Transfer to a large serving bowl.
Add the beans and most of the mint to the bowl. Toss gently. Just before serving, crumble the goat cheese over the salad and finish with the rest of the mint.
This recipe is a good way to use up the one or two leftover zucchini hanging out in the crisper drawer. I often use whole-wheat pastry flour, available in health food stores and many supermarkets, in pancakes because it provides a tender texture. However, regular whole-wheat flour works well, as does substituting unbleached all-purpose flour for the whole wheat. Nutmeg has a strong flavor that I like paired with both vegetables and whole grains. If you don't enjoy it as much, use the smaller amount.
Makes 10 to 12 pancakes
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (3 1/4 ounces)
3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour (3 1/4 ounces)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups milk (low-fat or whole)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 medium zucchini, trimmed and shredded on large holes of a box grater
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, yogurt or sour cream for serving (optional)
Add the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt to a large bowl and whisk thoroughly. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the eggs. Add the milk, zest, lemon juice and butter and whisk until frothy. Stir in the zucchini.
Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir gently, just until combined (some lumps are okay; do not over mix). Let the batter rest at room temperature for 10 minutes or up to 30, allowing the leavening agents to start reacting and any lumps of flour to dissolve.
Meanwhile, coat a nonstick skillet or griddle with cooking spray and heat to medium or medium-low. Give batter a quick stir. Using a small ladle or quarter-cup measure, scoop scant quarter cups of batter onto the cooking surface to make roughly 4-inch pancakes. Cook 2 minutes or until holes form on top of pancakes. Flip and cook on second side 1 minute or until golden brown. Serve with maple syrup, powdered sugar, yogurt or sour cream.
Use a sharp vegetable peeler to make thin squash ribbons, about a half-inch wide. Peel, then rotate the squash so strips are about the same width. Stop when you hit the rough seeds. The hot fettuccine and sauteed grape tomatoes will heat and slightly soften the squash.
Makes 4 servings
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 ounces whole-wheat or regular fettuccine
3 fully cooked chicken sausages, preferably spinach and feta or sun-dried tomato flavor
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved crosswise
3 medium zucchini, trimmed, skin removed and peeled into thin ribbons
3 medium yellow crookneck squash, trimmed, skin removed and peeled into thin ribbons
1/4 cup packed chopped fresh basil
Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and add fettuccine. Cook according to package directions. Reserve about 1 cup of pasta-cooking water and drain.
Meanwhile, coat a nonstick skillet with cooking spray and heat to medium. Add chicken sausage and cook, turning often, until golden brown on each side. Transfer to a cutting board. Allow sausage to rest for a few minutes, then thinly slice on the diagonal.
Add olive oil to skillet and turn heat to medium-low. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook 3 minutes, or until skin is no longer taut. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Deglaze skillet with about 1/4 cup of reserved pasta-cooking water, loosening any bits from the bottom of the skillet. Remove from heat.
Off the stove, add the zucchini ribbons to the empty pasta pot, followed by the tomato mixture, the drained pasta, the sliced sausage and about three-quarters of the basil. Toss well to combine. If pasta appears dry, add enough of the reserved cooking water to coat the pasta so it looks moist, but not wet.
Divide among 4 bowls and use a vegetable peeler to shave thin pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano over pasta. Sprinkle with remaining basil and serve immediately.