What would summer be without squash? A lot less filling.
A workhorse for summer menus, these shiny staples come in several shapes and sizes. (Generally, the smaller the better.)
And now is prime summer squash season. Hot weather brings out its best.
"This squash season is excellent," said Suzanne Ashworth, who grows several varieties at Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento. "It's been lousy for tomatoes, but the summer squash have been very good. They like the heat."
Summer squash alone may seem dull, but it's only the beginning. Its delicate flesh absorbs other flavors, making squash a natural meal builder and a good match for cheese, tomato sauce and olive oil.
There seem to be endless possibilities. The popular website Foodily.com lists 15,264 recipes for summer squash ranging from chocolate zucchini cake to feta-stuffed vegetarian main dishes.
Its culinary flexibility (as well as quick-growing abundance) are key to squash's popularity. But gardening cooks are annually challenged by their summer harvest. Zucchini catapults, anyone?
A native of the Americas, summer squash has traveled the globe. It has found a home in cuisines from California to Asia.
In Greece, yellow summer squash is fried and topped with garlic sauce. In Hungary, slices of cooked crookneck are served with dilled sour cream. The French can't make ratatouille without squash. Mexican cooks prefer squash blossoms, stuffed and fried.
Italians love zucchini, their favorite "little squash," but they're not alone. In Turkey, shredded zucchini becomes pancakes topped with yogurt. In Egypt, zucchini gets simmered with tomatoes and onion. In Vietnam, zucchini can become a hot salad.
And you were going to abandon it on a neighbor's doorstep.
To make any summer squash dish better, Ashworth offered this advice:
"Here's the drop-dead secret to better squash," she said. "Slice it, grate it, cube it whatever way you want to cut it up then press it lightly. You're squeezing out that extra water."
To do that, place the cut squash in a colander over a bowl. Sprinkle a little salt on the squash and let it sit for a few minutes first before squeezing. That will help draw out that water, too.
And there's a lot of excess moisture a typical zucchini is 95 percent water.
"It doesn't matter what kind of squash or what you're making, the result will be a much better product," Ashworth said. "By squeezing out some of that water, the squash will be chewier and more flavorful. If you put it in a soup, it will be less watery. No matter what you make, it helps."
For stuffed squash, scoop out the pulp and then lightly salt the inside, Ashworth added. "Salt it, then turn it upside-down for a few minutes to drain out some of that water. Then, fill it up (with stuffing). That extra step makes it ever so much better."
For stuffing, Ashworth recommends "8-ball" squash or tonda nizza, a ball-shaped French heirloom. Nizza is among her favorite summer squash along with baby scalloped or pattypan.
The key to flavor is getting squash while they're small, she noted. That's especially true of zucchini.
"Small is fine, but anything too big is pretty bad," she said of zucchini. "You want it no bigger than the size of two fingers."
Otherwise, get out the catapult.
KNOW YOUR SQUASH
All squash, which love heat, are grown during summer months. But summer squash differs from its so-called winter cousins in that it's grown to eat young and immature while seeds are small and the skin is still thin and pliable. The flavor is more delicate (some would say bland) and its texture fine-grained. But its shelf life also is a lot less than winter squash, which is allowed to develop thick protective rinds so it will "keep" until winter.
The varieties of summer squash commonly found in markets (as well as backyard gardens) have expanded greatly in recent years with more hybrids and heirlooms gaining popularity. Here are some of the main summer squash stars:
Zucchini: Traditionally long and dark almost-black green with white flesh, this squash also is called "Italian" or "marrow." New golden or striped hybrids give familiar zucchini interesting alternatives. Recent "8-ball" hybrids are almost spherical.
Straightneck: A favorite yellow squash features light cream color and good flavor.
Crookneck: This traditional summer squash has a distinctive swanlike neck and bright yellow color.
Pattypan: Also called scalloped, this is another old-time favorite with pale-green skin and flesh and mild flavor.
Globe:As the name implies, these hybrids have a baseball-like round shape, perfect for stuffing.