Summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) is the first fruiting vegetable to appear in the summer garden, long before the first tomato is ripe. Maybe by August the squash will seem ordinary, but now — with squash blossoms sounding their golden trumpets — the season has officially begun. The flowers held aloft on a slender stem are male. The female ones look similar, but at their base there is a small bump that will, in a few days, become a delicious little squash — ready to pick.
Summer squash takes varied forms, from the standard green zucchini to the bright yellow squash (crookneck or straight); from round ones, such as ‘Ronde de Nice,’ to flat, scalloped pattypan. Most grow on large, bushy plants; exceptions include the heirloom Italian “trombone” squash (such as ‘Zucchetta Rampicante’), which trails on long vines and has a denser texture. All squash types are mild-tasting, which, on the one hand, makes them non-threatening to those put off by strong vegetable flavors, but on the other hand, issues a call to action for the creative cook. When I cook summer squash, I rely on its light background flavor to overlay with the more complex notes of herbs.
As luck would have it, early summer heralds the best time in the herb garden — when foliage is at its freshest, the essential oils that give herbs their flavors are the most powerful, and flowers for garnishing often bloom. Perennial herbs, such as sage, tarragon and thyme, and annuals, such as dill and parsley, will spark up squash dishes.
Choose a sunny site where cucurbits, such as squash, cucumbers and melons, have not grown recently. Hungry squash plants prefer fertile soil rich in organic matter. When the soil has warmed to at least 62 degrees Fahrenheit, sow three seeds each in hills spaced 3 feet apart. When seedlings emerge, thin to one.
Keep the bed weed-free by cultivating shallowly with a hoe while the plants are growing. Later, the large leaves will shade out most weeds.
Unlike hard-skinned winter squash, summer squash can be enjoyed before they’ve reached full maturity, and can be harvested at any size, from a few inches long to more than a foot in length. But the fruits go from tiny to enormous in a flash, so if you’re after squash that are, say, 6 inches or smaller — when they are especially lovely and tender — you’ll need to check the plants daily to catch fruits at just the right moment. Harvesting squash often will also spur the plants to continue to produce fruit. The formation of squash monsters, which can grow unnoticed beneath the giant leaves, makes a plant less productive, so keep up with the picking!
Handle harvested fruits gently to avoid nicking the skin. Wounds admit bacteria that can lead to rot. Squash will store up to a week in the fridge, but for best quality, use them at their freshest.
Find a full guide to growing these early summer treasures in All About Growing Summer Squash.
Choose small- to medium-sized squash for sautéing or steaming. They’re delicious served simply — with just butter, salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Try summer squash steamed whole, then sliced lengthwise and doused with vinaigrette, set on a bed of lettuce, and enjoyed as a room-temperature salad. Medium-to-large cucurbits are best in soups, gratins, or dishes in which they are stuffed and baked. Larger fruits pose more difficulty in finding good roles for them; they may be best grated and frozen for casseroles and zucchini bread. Or freeze them with onions (find directions under "Freezing Summer Squash," later in this article).
Summer squash season is a long one. I’ve designed the recipes here to inspire creativity in the gardener-cook. Don’t overlook the squash flowers, which also have wonderful possibilities. Stuffed with cheese, dipped in batter and then fried in oil, they make toothsome fritters. Prepare squash blossoms in simpler ways, too. Sliced into ribbons, the flowers keep their wonderful deep-yellow color even when stirred into a hot soup (as shown in this Zucchini Soup Recipe) or strewn across a tossed salad. Pick the male blossoms — the plants produce more of these than needed for pollination — in the morning when they are fresh and wide open to welcome bees.
Freeze onions and summer squash together for dishes such as casseroles, soups and sautés. Peel the onions and wash the squash well. Then, cut the squash into half-inch lengths and cut the onions to a similar thickness.
To blanch the vegetables, have a pot of boiling water ready, and fill a sink or large bowl with ice water. Drop the vegetables into the boiling water and remove after 3 minutes, draining them in a colander. Immediately plunge the colander into the ice water with the rim just above the surface, and swish the colander until the vegetables are cool. (For a number of batches, add more ice to keep the water chilled.) Put the vegetables in freezer bags in an amount that’s convenient for your cooking style, pressing out as much air as possible before sealing. Keep the packages flat to better stack them in the freezer. Thaw packages as needed, then steam or sauté briefly, adding butter, salt and pepper, and your favorite fresh herbs.
Barbara Damrosch farms with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at their Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.
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