When summer squash and zucchini are in season, I find myself cooking with them again and again because they’re so versatile. As long as you make a couple of smart decisions about which ones to use and how to cut them, squash will be a fresh, bright ingredient in all kinds of summer meals.
Whether you’re choosing from the garden or the produce counter, pick small, firm squash, with a tight feel to them. Smaller squash are more tender because the skin is still thin and the seeds are unformed; they also contain less water than older squash.
After a gentle scrub under the faucet, the squash is ready to cut. I never peel summer squash. Besides contributing color and nutrients, the skin helps the vegetable hold together better when cooked.
I cut the squash in different shapes, depending on how I’m using it. A medium dice (1/3 to 1/2 inch) is perfect for sautés, but for a more refined look, or to add to a dish during just the last few minutes of cooking, I’ll cut the squash into a small (1/4-inch) dice. Round or half-moon slices are good for soups and gratins. I julienne squash for stir-fries and slaws. For layering in a lasagna and for frying, I cut whole squash into thin, lengthwise slices. With my trusty Boerner V-Slicer, I can make long zucchini strings, which I toss into soups or cook lightly and coat with a dressing to serve as a side dish.
Summer squash into summer meals
Probably my favorite summer squash preparation is a quick sauté with a southwestern touch, but I don’t stop there. Here are some suggestions for turning zucchini into great summer meals:
For a quick gratin, layer thin slices of yellow and green pattypan squash and tomato in an oiled shallow baking dish. Season well with salt, pepper, and minced fresh herbs like basil, oregano, marjoram, and summer savory. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan, drizzle with olive oil, and bake until golden.
Simmer a summer stew of zucchini, tomatoes, sweet onions, bell peppers, and corn or hominy. Season with cumin, fresh oregano, and chopped or puréed roasted mild chiles like poblanos. Garnish with sour cream and chopped fresh cilantro.
Make a colorful slaw by tossing blanched julienned squash, red and yellow bell peppers, and carrots with blanched baby green beans. Dress with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red-wine vinegar, and Dijon mustard.
Make a quick, pretty Asian-style soup by simmering chicken broth with a piece of lemongrass, a pinch of red chile flakes, and thinly sliced shiitakes. A few minutes before serving, add long strings of summer squash. Garnish with sliced scallions, cilantro, and lime juice.
Lighten a traditional lasagna by nestling blanched lengthwise slices of zucchini on top of meat sauce, or use the slices as-a layer with béchamel and cheese in a vegetarian lasagna.
For a fresh-tasting risotto, add diced zucchini, where it adds a background vegetal element without upstaging the rice. Add medium-size dice in the middle of cooking, or small dice close to the end (especially pretty with dark-skinned zucchini). Fold in a bit of lemon zest and chives at the end.
Bake a savory tart. Fill a pastry pepper, and cook, tossing, until lightly browned but still firm. Off the heat, add some chopped fresh mint, basil, or thyme and a splash of lemon juice or white-wine vinegar.
Try this flavorful salad as a side dish or base for grilled fish: Briefly steam long strands or matchsticks of squash and toss with an Asian-flavored dressing that includes soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, sherry, grated ginger, and a bit of lemon juice.
For a frittata, sauté diced or grated squash briefly with garlic and a little chopped onion. Add chopped basil and beaten eggs and bake until puffed.
Make a pretty salad from long, wide ribbons of tender raw squash tossed in a balsamic-Dijon vinaigrette. Use a vegetable peeler to make the ribbons.
For a twist on ratatouille, grill small whole squash or lengthwise halves of larger ones until just tender. Cut into small chunks and toss with grilled and cut eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, and onions. Moisten with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper, lemon juice, minced garlic, and chopped basil.
For a vegetarian curry, sauté large dice or chunky slices of summer squash, onion, carrots, potato, bell pepper, and broccoli with red curry paste, and then simmer in coconut milk.
Harvest sweet, tender squash and blossoms from your own garden
Summer squash are easy to grow, though they do require some space. Once the weather and soil have warmed, plant seeds or young plants in a sunny area of the garden. Within a few weeks, you’ll be harvesting. When the fruits are the size you want (check every day, as they grow quickly), cut—don’t pull—them from the plant, using a small, sharp knife.
Squash plants produce separate male and female flowers. The male blossoms stand atop tall, thin stems; the female flowers are borne close to the plant, and often have baby fruits already formed below them. Either can be harvested, but if you pick female blossoms, you’ll sacrifice potential squash.
Harvest squash blossoms early in the day, dip them in a bowl of cool water to rinse away dust, and then shake gently to dry. Pinch off the stamen in the center of each flower. Cut the yellow flowers crosswise into a chiffonade and use as a garnish or fry them whole, filled or not (I like goat cheese seasoned with fresh herbs). Twist the petal tips to close them, dip in an egg beaten with a little milk, roll in cornmeal, and fry until golden.