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Buttery-Sweet Summer Squash for Fresh Summer Meals

Fine Cooking Issue 27
Photos: Scott Phillips
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As the warmer weather settles in, I love to see summer squashes as they ripen early in the garden and appear on the stands at my local markets. Seeing all the diverse shapes and vibrant colors—and in the kitchen, coaxing them to their succulent best—is as sweet a pleasure as long days and balmy nights.

Zucchini, the fast-growing summer squash we all know best, is just one of many summer squash varieties. Cooked to tender perfection, all are nutty-sweet and delicious, whether steamed, sautéed, poached, baked, or grilled.

look for firm squash with no blemishes

All summer squash tastes best when it’s picked young; if squash is allowed to grow too big, it gets watery, tough, and tasteless. Look for squash that’s brightly colored, firm, and plump, with a filled-out look and no blemishes. The skin should have a smooth, glossy sheen. Stay away from bruised, dull-looking or flaccid squash—it will be bland and watery.

Zucchini-type squash is best when it’s no more than six inches long, and pattypan or round squash should be between two and four inches  in diameter. If you choose tiny “baby” squash, again, make sure they’re brightly colored, plump, and tender.

If you see summer squash with fresh-looking blossoms still attached, buy them. This is a sure sign that the squash was picked and handled carefully on the way to the market.

You’ll find some yellow crookneck squash that have a slightly bumpy look to their skin. It just means you’ve come across an old-fashioned variety rather than one of the newer hybrids, where the bumps have been bred out.

Ronde de Nice is tender and rich-tasting. Handle this easy-bruising squash gently and use it promptly for the freshest taste and texture. Steam or sauté baby Rondes de Nice whole. For a delicious main course, stuff larger ones with a mixture of sautéed onions, ground lamb, spinach, cooked rice, a pinch of cumin, and feta cheese; bake until tender.
Green pattypan is juicier and meatier than other summer squash. Thanks to the scalloped edges, pattypans slice up into beguiling shapes. Hollow them out, sauté the insides with onions, celery, garlic, and dill, stuff this back into the shells, top with Gruyère cheese, and bake.

Buy a mix for color and flavor variation

Whenever they’re available, be sure to buy several different shapes and colors. They’ll look great in a finished dish, and the subtle variations in flavor and texture make a lovely mix.

Cooking summer squash in a little butter or olive oil with garlic, shallots, or scallions coaxes out its mild, buttery taste. Chopped summer herbs such as basil, dill, lemon thyme, chives, and flat-leaf parsley are good at setting off the delicate flavors of summer squash.

Cook chunks of summer squash with eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, and onion; season with a splash of good balsamic vine g a r to make a ratatouilletype dish. For an easy supper, I love to combine a variety of sliced summer squashes in a casserole with chunks of tomatoes and onions. I top the vegetables with sweet Italian sausages sliced down the middle and bake the casserole until the sausage is browned, the vegetables are fork-tender, and the sausage juices have flavored the vegetables.

Golden zucchini is sunny yellow and shaped just like its green cousin. Don’t confuse it with pale yellow straightneck summer squash (which I find bland and watery by comparison). Mix golden zucchini with green ones for a colorful and tasty sauté or grill.
Golden Scallop (also called Golden Sunburst) is my favorite baby squash because of its especially nutty flavor. Buy them no larger than 2-1/2-inches in diameter. These sweet little shapes are wonderful steamed and topped with fresh parsley or dill and a little butter

Green zucchini is medium or dark green with tiny golden flecks; its skin is smooth or lightly ridged. For a delicious chilled soup, purée cooked zucchini with chicken broth, add fresh chopped herbs, and stir in a dollop of sour cream or fresh plain yogurt.
Lebanese zucchini (also called Middle Eastern) is shorter and plumper than its darker relatives, with a blunt, rounded bottom end. This celadon-colored squash has thin, tender skin and meltingly creamy flesh. Try it with couscous or rice: sliced thin, sautéed with garlic, fresh mint, and raisins, and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts.

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