Most gardeners can relate a story, verging on the horror genre, about finding a monstrous zucchini that was either totally absent from the vegetable bed or miniscule just hours earlier. Next comes the part about wrestling this unwieldy giant into the kitchen and figuring out a palatable way to prepare it. The prolific and fast-growing nature of these edible members of the gourd family makes them the butt of more jokes than any other vegetable. But there’s a foolproof prescription for summer squash eating enjoyment: frequent picking and quick cooking.
There are several types and numerous varieties of summer squash. The ubiquitous zucchini comes to mind first. Most are long, cylindrical, and green, but zucchini come in other colors, too. My favorites include the very dark-skinned varieties like ‘Raven’ and ‘Black Beauty’ and the ridged and striped Italian types like ‘Costata Romanesco’ and ‘Cocozelle Bush’. I also like ‘Ronde de Nice’, a round, gray-green French variety.
Nubbly-skinned yellow crooknecks like ‘Horn of Plenty’ are the squash I recall my Midwestern granny cooking most often. Smooth straightnecks are a newer twist—or untwist—on this classic. One especially tasty straightneck is ‘Zephyr’.
Another familiar summer squash is the scallop-edged, flattened sphere called a pattypan. Again, this type comes in bright sunny yellow, dark green, and creamy pale green varieties.
One of my squash preferences is the pale green Middle Eastern cousa type, of which ‘Magda’ and ‘Clarimore’ are two examples. These are somewhat plumper and more tapered than slender zucchini. Their compact, succulent, mellow “meat” holds its shape well during cooking.
Pick them small
Small is definitely beautiful when it comes to summer squashes. For all summer squash varieties, harvest firm young fruits, preferably either before or just after their blossoms wilt, favoring those that appear bright colored and glossy. These will have a tender texture and well-developed, mild flavor, variously described as sweet, nutty, cucumberlike, delicate, or buttery, depending on the specific variety.
The larger a squash, the tougher it becomes, with seedy, watery flesh and bland flavor. One trick for enhancing an oversized squash is to dice or grate it, sprinkle on some salt, and drain it in a colander for about 20 minutes. Rinse it and press out the excess moisture before cooking.
Summer squashes are particularly perishable, so fresh is definitely best. You can store them, wrapped to keep out moisture, in the refrigerator vegetable bin, but use them within a few days.
Summer squash are not only gung-ho growers but also versatile resources for summer meals. For cooking, all types are interchangeable, although you’ll no doubt develop favorites for different purposes. Delicate herbs and spices showcase squash’s naturally subtle flavor. But this unassuming culinary chameleon also invites more assertive, vibrant seasonings. Olive oil, garlic, onion, basil, oregano, bell peppers, and tomatoes are among the most traditional squash accompaniments, though almost any ethnic cuisine is fair game for creative experimentation. I’ve played with Moroccan and Mexican flavors in two of the recipes here. Squash provides good food value, including vitamins A, C, and B-complex, plus potassium, calcium, and fiber.
Summer squashes are amenable to many cooking techniques, including sautéing, steaming, stir-frying, deep frying, grilling, roasting, stewing, simmering in soups, stuffing and baking, and even pickling. Grated squash contributes moistness to breads and other baked goods. Quickly prepared sautés especially suit the summer season, and the required bit of cooking oil enriches squash’s low-fat flavor.
In sautés, size matters
The shape and size of the prepared vegetables directly correlates with sauté cooking time. Left whole or halved, tiny squashes cook through quite rapidly. The recipes that follow feature three especially quick-cooking cuts: dice, angled slices, and julienne. The latter means matchsticks, made most efficiently by cutting the whole squash, or other vegetable, into 1/8-inch-thick vertical slices, stacking the slices and cutting them into 1/8-inch-thick slivers, and then cutting these into shorter lengths. To make angled slices, I cut long squashes lengthwise into quarters or smaller wedges, depending on their diameter, and thinly slice these on the diagonal to approximately equal lengths. A dice, of course, is simply small cubes. Using a consistent cut is visually pleasing, plus the pieces will cook in about the same amount of time.
Have everything ready—vegetables and herbs chopped, oil and seasonings at hand —before you begin cooking. Use a wide skillet or sauté pan to prevent overcrowding, which will result in more of a steamed effect. Sauté means “jump” in French, and that’s what the vegetables should do in the pan. Cook over medium-high heat to quickly seal in flavors, and stir constantly. In practically no time, you’ll have a tantalizing, tasty ending to your squash story.
Zucchini with zip
Mint and lemon juice add zest to this simple sauté. A proper julienne cut results in pieces the size of a small wooden matchstick, about 1 1/2 inches long and 1/8 inch thick.
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups julienned carrot
4 cups julienned green zucchini
4 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup minced fresh mint
Add the oil to a skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the carrot for 2 to 3 minutes, until almost tender. Add the zucchini and scallion and continue to sauté for 2 to 4 minutes longer. Grind in black pepper to taste and remove the pan from the heat. Add the lemon juice, mint, and salt to taste. Serve immediately.
90 cal, 4g fat, 35mg sodium, 5g fiber
Mexican-inspired summer squash sauté
Serve this festive sauté over long-grain rice or rolled up in warm wheat tortillas. Add more or less chile to taste. Pepitas are available at natural foods stores.
1 medium avocado
1 Tbs. fresh lime juice
2 Tbs. pepitas (green pumpkin seeds)
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 small jalapeño or serrano chile, minced
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into thin, short strips
1 cup thinly sliced summer squash
1/2 cup corn kernels
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Peel and seed the avocado and cut it into short slices about 1/4 inch thick. Toss them with the lime juice and cover tightly.
Toast the pepitas in a heavy-bottomed dry skillet over low heat until lightly browned and nutty tasting, about 5 minutes. Some will pop as they toast. Watch them carefully, and shake the pan a few times. Pour them out when done so they don’t burn.
Add the oil to a skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 2 minutes, until it appears translucent. Stir in the garlic and chile. To maintain the heat, add the bell pepper and squash gradually, stirring constantly. Continue to sauté for several minutes, until the vegetables are almost tender. Add the corn and cumin and sauté briefly, just until the vegetables are done. Add the salt.
Stir in the avocado/lime mixture and remove from the heat. Add the cilantro and more salt if needed. Serve immediately, garnished with the pepitas.
180 cal, 12g fat, 300mg sodium, 6g fiber
Moroccan-style summer squash sauté
4 side servings, or 2 main-dish servings with rice or couscous
This colorful medley makes a quick, light meal served over couscous. You can start with powdered spices, of course, but grinding them by hand results in fresher flavor. Cut the squash and carrots in quarters lengthwise, then in thin slices. Slender pear slices are a good additional garnish.
1/4 tsp. coriander seeds
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
1/4 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
Pinch of cayenne or to taste
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
1 medium red onion, quartered and thinly sliced crosswise
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 medium red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced vertically, then cut into 1 1/2-inch sticks
2 cups sliced green or gold zucchini or other summer squash
1 medium tomato, peeled and thinly sliced vertically
2 Tbs. dried currants
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
2 Tbs. minced flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. coarsely chopped toasted almonds
With a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind together the coriander, fennel, caraway, and cumin seeds. Add the turmeric and cayenne and grind again.
Add the oil to a skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the carrot and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and garlic and continue to sauté, gradually adding the bell pepper and squash. When the vegetables are almost tender, add the spice mixture and sauté briefly. Add the tomato, currants, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Continue to cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the tomato juices and the flavors have melded. Stir in the parsley and add black pepper and more salt to taste. Serve immediately, topped with the almonds.
Note: To peel the tomato easily, immerse it briefly in boiling water, then in cold water; the skin will slip off readily.
110 cal, 6g fat, 310mg sodium, 3g fiber