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Summer squash is one vegetable we take for granted from May to November. If you have it in your garden, you can't find enough uses or takers for it. And if you don't, then maybe you, like me, are grateful for this old faithful that will be around until frost. It's so prolific that we can count on it for its fiber and nutrients almost to Thanksgiving.
On restaurant menus, I've seen summer squash regularly as the vegetable du jour, but not very imaginatively cooked. At home, I sauté, grill or roast green and gold zucchini, yellow crookneck or straightneck and pattypan, varying the oils, herbs and companions (onions, tomatoes, okra). Grated or julienned squash goes in anything: pasta sauces, pizza toppings, soups and stir-fry. I cook it up soon after bringing it home from the market (or harvest) in batches large enough to add to work lunches all week or to throw on the dinner table alongside a reheated main dish. If I'm bothering to turn on the oven anyway, I'll roast chunked squash in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Precooked, they can be seasoned any way you like when sautéed or tossed in a pasta salad.
The current foodie movie Julie & Julia reminds me of Ms. Child's famous recipe for baked ratatouille, in which each variety of the carefully precooked vegetables is arranged into a layer and then enjoys a "communal simmer." But it seemed to me one could cook this essential Provençal dish without so many steps in the process. So I snooped around Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and other books to find that there are many ways to make ratatouille, which David subtitles "Aubergines [eggplant], Tomatoes, Onions, and Peppers Stewed in Oil" with "courgettes [zucchini] sometimes being added and occasionally potatoes as well." The following Stove-Top Ratatouille is inspired by memories of the dish in France and the regular presence of squash with the eggplant (which is not technically squash, but a cousin of the tomato family). Yellow Squash Béchamel is my recreation of a potluck classic without the cream of mushroom soup.
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon cumin (or to taste)
2 medium onions, chopped (1 cup)
3 medium zucchini, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 medium eggplant (about a pound), in 2-inch chunks
2 sweet red or green peppers, in 2-inch chunks
2 fat cloves garlic, minced
2 large red heirloom tomatoes (or 4 medium) plus their juices, chopped
1/2 cup packed basil leaves, chopped if large
kosher salt and pepper to taste
Soften onions in 1/4 cup of the oil with cumin, about five minutes over medium-low heat. Add zucchini, eggplant, peppers and garlic. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes until tender but still holding shape. Add remaining oil, tomatoes and basil. Cook gently for an additional 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serves 6 as a side. "Takes kindly to reheating," Ms. David points out, and is "just as good cold as hot, and sometimes even better."
Yellow Squash Béchamel
2 pounds yellow summer squash or patty pan squash, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 small to medium onion
2 tablespoons butter, plus extra for baking dish
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups milk or cream
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, or to taste
Salt and pepper
Optional: 1/2 cup flavorful cheese such as parmesan
2 cups breadcrumbs, mixed with 2 tablespoons softened butter (see below to make your own)
One hour before baking, salt squash chunks and set in a colander over a bowl or the sink to drain. Pat dry. Melt onion in butter until soft, 5 minutes over low heat. Stir in flour until blended, and add 1 1/2 cups milk in steady stream, continuing to stir. When bubbly, test for thickness, which should resemble gravy. Add additional milk or cream if needed. Add seasonings and cheese, if using. Butter a 2-quart casserole or other baking dish. Add drained squash chunks, pour sauce over all, and top with breadcrumbs mixed with butter. Bake at 400 for 30 to 45 minutes until squash is tender and crumbs are golden. Serves 6 as a side. With the cheese, it makes a fine vegetarian main dish for 4.
Note: To make 1 cup breadcrumbs, pulse in a food processor or blender half of a day-old baguette until coarse. Add softened butter. Pulse just enough to combine.
This is great for breakfast with cream cheese, or as an afternoon treat with coffee and tea. The squash gives it texture, moisture, vitamins and fiber; the pecans offer protein.
3 large eggs (4 if medium)
1 cup sugar
1 cup canola oil
2 cups grated zucchini, unpeeled (2-3 depending on size)
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups all purpose flour (can substitute whole wheat pastry flour; bread will be heavier)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 to 2 tablespoons cinnamon (to taste)
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
Stir the first five ingredients in large mixing bowl until sugar and squash are well mixed into liquids. Sift together dry ingredients until blended. Fold dry ingredients into wet ones to combine without over-stirring. When no trace of flour is left, fold in pecans until distributed. Pour into two 8-inch loaf pans that have been greased and lightly dusted with granulated sugar, tipping out excess sugar to leave a thin coating. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, (depending on your oven) or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in pans 10 minutes, remove and continue cooling on wire rack for another 20 minutes before slicing. Makes 2 loaves; one for now, one for the freezer or a friend.
Note: If you freeze grated zucchini while its in its abundant bumper crop, you can use it in this recipe over the winter. Defrost and puree the raw zucchini first. Add an additional 1/4 cup of flour if squash is watery.