Alan Tangren: Summer means squash | TheUnion.com
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Alan Tangren: Summer means squash

Alan Tangren
Columnist

Dear Alan: I’d love some ideas about how to use zucchini and other summer squash. Can you help?

Alan: Squash are the first of summer’s vegetable bounty. By mid-June, growers from nearby valley farms are offering many varieties at our local farmer’s markets, and foothill farmers are beginning their harvest.

Zucchini are the first to show up, both green and gold, followed closely by the slightly warty yellow crookneck and the scalloped patty pan varieties.

Later in the season we will find some of the less common varieties, like Ronde de Nice, that look like dark green, shiny billiard balls. All of these squash varieties are close cousins of pumpkins.

Of course, before the fruits come the blossoms. Squash plants have separate male and female flowers. The male flowers produce the pollen, and the female flowers produce the babies.

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The ever frugal Italians figured out they could harvest most of the male flowers to eat, without endangering the production of the baby squash.

The first blossoms of spring are usually dipped in fritter batter and fried; later on they may be stuffed with ricotta and served in a broth with basil and tomatoes or corn.

The squash fruits themselves are flavor magnets. Slices of any summer squash can be quickly sautéed in olive oil with garlic, onions and herbs to make an varsitile side dish.

Or make a simple gratin of zucchini, sliced and covered with cream and Parmesan, baked to a crusty brown. Squash add lusciousness to baked vegetable tians, layered with onions, garlic, basil, tomatoes and eggplant. And they are essential for ratatouille.

Summer squash at the market should have a bright shiny color, and be heavy for their size. The skin should be very tender. Avoid the largest squashes on the table. They are likely to be watery and seedy.

I like to use zucchini while they are still small and very shiny, about 4 to 6 inches long. Because the skins of summer squashes are very tender, a few surface scratches are inevitable.

Most squash plants take up little space in the home garden and produce abundantly over a long season. And you get the bonus of fresh squash blossoms.

Zucchini and other summer squashes should be used soon after harvest. Keep them in a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator for no more than a couple days.

Squash blossoms should be vibrant orange, not bruised, and wide open. Blossoms even one day old will be closed up, and the petals will stick together, making them hard to stuff, but you can still use them chopped and added to soup.

Rinse and drain summer squash before using. Wipe off any stubborn dirt with a damp towel. Trim off the stem and blossom ends before proceeding with the recipe.

Cut up squash can be kept refrigerated for several hours, covered with a damp towel.

The simplest and very delicious way to cook squash is to slice, dice or cut in wedges and sauté in a little olive oil. Allow the squash to brown lightly and add lots of chopped garlic. Reduce the heat and toss for a minute or two longer. Sprinkle with fresh basil or parsley and serve.

Squash cooked in this way can also be added to pasta or risotto, or used to make frittata.

Squash that have been thin sliced or grated should be salted lightly and allowed to drain for 30 minutes in a colander to get rid of excess water.

Make a refreshing summer salad with squash sliced across or lengthwise and salted lightly, then drained. Dress with lemon juice, pepper, fresh herbs such as basil and mint, and a good amount of olive oil.

A simple zucchini fritter can be made with grated, drained zucchini, fresh herbs and chopped garlic, mixed with an egg and a couple tablespoons of flour or potato starch. Film a pan with olive oil and add small scoops of the batter. Fry on both sides until golden.

I love pickled zucchini, which I first had years ago, still served at the Zuni Café in San Francisco. It is always on the plate next to the grilled hamburger on a focaccia bun with plenty of garlicky aïoli: truly a match made in taste heaven, and so easy to do at home.

Zuni Café Pickled Zucchini

1 pound small to medium zucchini, green or gold

1 small yellow onion

3 Tablespoons kosher salt

2 cups cider vinegar

1 cup sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

1-1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow or brown mustard seed

1 scant teaspoon ground turmeric

Wash and trim the ends from the zucchini. Slice very thin, about 1/16 inch, using a sharp knife or a mandolin, either straight across or on a diagonal. Peel, halve and slice the onion as thin as the squash. Mix the squash and the onion in a large bowl and toss with the salt. Cover with cold water, stir to dissolve the salt, and add a few ice cubes. Let stand for 1 hour. This step is very important for making a crisp pickled squash.

Drain the vegetables and taste a piece of zucchini. If it seems too salty for your taste, rinse the vegetables under running water and drain again. Place the vegetables on clean kitchen towels and pat dry. Return them to the dry bowl.

Mix the vinegar, sugar, dry mustard, mustard seed and turmeric in a non-reactive saucepan and simmer slowly for 3 minutes. Set aside until warm to the touch.

Add the brine mixture to the vegetables and stir with a wooden spoon to mix well. Spoon the vegetables into small pickle jars and top off with the liquid. Seal tightly and refrigerate for at least a day to allow the flavors to mingle and penetrate. The pickles should be a lovely chartreuse color. They will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator, or for longer storage you can process them in a boiling water bath according to the directions in a good canning book.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.


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