In Season: What to do with all that squash

Got squash? You have a staple ingredient of summer cooking.
Got squash? You have a staple ingredient of summer cooking. Kansas City Star

Straight, round or crooknecked, summer squash shapes our warm-weather meals.

Abundant from June through September, these thin-skinned staples can be turned into an incredible variety of dishes, both savory and sweet. Absorbing other flavors into its mild flesh, summer squash becomes a mealtime chameleon, subbing for pasta in lasagna or fat in baked goods. A world traveler, squash tastes at home in a wide assortment of cuisines.

Prompted by hot days, summer squash marks a seasonal shift as the harvest grows and the temperature rises. Along with triple-digit days, Sacramento’s squash crop started arriving extra early this year, with the first wave of zucchini, globes and crooknecks ready just after Memorial Day.

Now with the Fourth of July bearing down, the squash are on a real roll. As any veggie gardener knows, that green and yellow mother lode can be both a blessing and a curse – squash just keep coming and coming. (There’s a reason orphaned zucchini are left anonymously on doorsteps.) What do you do with all that squash?

Zucchini, in particular, annually sends cooks in search of new ideas. Taste of Home magazine, for example, lists zucchini as the most searched summer produce ingredient in its recipe database each year. During the summer of 2015, more than 25,000 readers searched Taste of Home’s database for zucchini. (Peaches were a distant second.) Yellow squash also made the Top 10 searches with more than 3,000 queries.

“Zucchini grows abundantly in the summertime, so I am sure home cooks are actively looking for creative ways to incorporate the ingredient into their summer cooking and eating,” said editor Emily Tyra. “The possibilities are endless, as zucchini is quite versatile and easily incorporated into salads, soups, sides or even desserts.”

Five of the most-searched zucchini recipes on the Taste of Home site were desserts, including two variations of zucchini cupcakes. Others in the top 10 highlighted zucchini in nontraditional dishes such as squash-stuffed enchiladas, “pizza” casserole (where the squash subs for crust) and quiche.

How many ways are there to cook summer squash? The possibilities seem endless – and probably are. The popular website lists 17,571 summer squash recipes contributed by its bloggers, chefs and cookbook authors. (Of those, 15,359 are for zucchini.)

Before squashing those recipe files or creating your own, remember these two simple rules:

▪ Size matters. Don’t let your zucchini grow up to be baseball bats. They’re tasty (and much more appealing) when kept to mere hotdog size. In fact, immature summer squash have more flavor and better texture when harvested and used small – under 6 inches. As they grow larger, that mild flesh can turn bitter.

▪ Summer squash are 95 percent water. When cooked, that moisture has to go somewhere. That can lead to soggy casseroles and baked goods.

The trick is to remove some of that water before cooking. To make any zucchini, pattypan or crookneck dish tastier, first take the squish out of your squash.

Slice, grate or cube the squash and place it in a colander over a bowl. Sprinkle the squash lightly with salt and let it stand a few minutes. Then, lightly press moisture out of the squash.

By removing that excess water before cooking, the squash will stay firmer (this is especially good for soups or sauces that can make squash all but dissolve). The final product will be chewier, with more flavor.

With those tips in mind, you may never get tired of trying new recipes for squash. It beats leaving it on doorsteps.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Zucchini cupcakes

Makes 18 cupcakes

This recipe ranked among the most searched last summer in Taste of Home’s recipe database. This award-winning recipe was originally submitted by Virginia Lapierre of Vermont.

3 large eggs

1 1/3 cups sugar

1/2 cup canola oil

1/2 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 1/2 cups shredded zucchini

For frosting:

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup butter, cubed

1/4 cup 2 percent milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 to 2 cups confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat first five ingredients (eggs through almond extract). Combine dry ingredients; gradually add to egg mixture and blend well. Stir in zucchini.

Fill paper-lined muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack.

For frosting, combine brown sugar, butter and milk in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat; cook and stir until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Cool to lukewarm.

Gradually beat in confectioner’s sugar until frosting reaches spreading consistency. Frost cupcakes.

Zucchini and squash blossom soufflés

Time: About 1 hour

Makes 6 to 8 small soufflés

Choose zucchini that is small but not tiny (so-called baby squash can be bitter). Recipe from The New York Times.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing ramekins

1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 cups whole milk or half-and-half, more as needed

1 thyme sprig

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

Pinch of cayenne

A little freshly grated nutmeg

2 pounds small fresh zucchini, coarsely grated, about 4 cups

4 large eggs, separated

1 small green serrano chili, finely chopped (optional)

4 ounces Emmentaler or Gruyère cheese, grated, or a mixture with 1/4-part part Parmesan

1 tablespoon finely cut chives

2 tablespoons rough-chopped basil

6 to 8 squash blossoms, tough part removed, torn into 1/2-inch strips

Butter ramekins well and set aside. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Make a thick béchamel sauce: Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Stir in flour and cook together over medium heat for a few minutes, without browning. Slowly add milk or half and half stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Add thyme sprig and bay leaf and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes, whisking occasionally, and adding a little more milk or half-and-half if the sauce gets too thick.

Remove and discard thyme sprig and bay leaf. Season sauce well with salt and pepper, then add cayenne and nutmeg. Remove from stove and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, sprinkle grated zucchini with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and mix well. Put zucchini in a colander and let drain for 15 minutes. Working with one handful at a time, squeeze all excess liquid from zucchini. Discard liquid or use for another purpose (such as soup).

Pour egg yolks into béchamel sauce and beat until smooth. Add zucchini, chopped chili and grated cheese and mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula. Add a bit more salt and pepper, then add chives, basil and squash blossoms. Mix to distribute.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Stir 1/4 of the beaten whites into the zucchini mixture to lighten it, then carefully fold in remaining whites. Quickly spoon soufflé batter into ramekins.

Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 350 and rotate tray. Bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until tops are nicely browned and a small knife inserted emerges dry. Serve immediately.

Grilled summer squash salad with feta (cover recipe)

Serves 4 to 6

Grilling the squash and onion brings out so much flavor in the vegetables that all they need is salt, pepper, a little balsamic vinegar and crumbled feta. Recipe from Stephanie Witt Sedgwick.

2 pounds summer squash, preferably a mix of zucchini and yellow squash, cut lengthwise into generous 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 large sweet or red onion, cut into 1/2-inch rounds/rings

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, or more to taste

1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled feta cheese

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (400 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal; when the coals are ready, distribute them evenly over the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.

Combine the squash and onion in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle the oil evenly over them, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat evenly. Transfer the vegetables to the grill, working in batches as needed. Close the lid and cook for about 4 minutes, so the vegetables have nice grill marks. Use tongs to flip the slices over.

Close the lid and cook for 2 to 4 minutes to achieve nice grill marks on the second side; the vegetables will have softened slightly. Return the vegetables to the same mixing bowl as they are done; once they are all in the bowl, cover tightly with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Uncover the bowl and transfer the vegetables to a cutting board.

Cut the grilled squash slices crosswise into generous 1/4-inch-wide matchsticks. Cut the grilled onion rings into small dice, transferring them to a serving bowl as you work. Add the vinegar, season with salt and pepper to taste and toss to combine. Taste, and add vinegar or seasonings as needed. Scatter the feta on top.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Portuguese bread soup (acorda)

Serves 4

This summery version of the traditional dish cooks bread and squash in broth until their consistency is porridgelike. Just before serving, a raw egg is stirred into each portion, which makes the soup creamy. If you prefer, you could garnish each serving with a poached egg instead. The recipe calls for raw eggs: If you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, use pasteurized eggs, available in some supermarkets. The soup is best served on the day it’s made. Make ahead: Fresh bread can be torn into pieces and held at room temperature for 1 day.

1 bunch cilantro

4 large cloves garlic

2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more as needed

1/4 cup olive oil

8 ounces slender summer squash or zucchini, cut into thin rounds

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced

4 to 5 cups no-salt-added, light-colored vegetable or chicken broth, preferably homemade

8 ounces day-old or stale bread from a country-style French or Italian loaf, torn into bite-size pieces

4 small garlic scapes, cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch pieces

4 small or medium eggs

Separate the cilantro leaves from their stems; you should have about 1 1/2 cups, loosely packed. Finely chop the leaves and transfer to a medium bowl. Finely chop the stems and place in a separate bowl.

Combine the garlic and a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle; reduce them to a paste, then add to the bowl of chopped cilantro leaves.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat for a few minutes, then add the squash or zucchini, the onion, cilantro stems and 1/2 teaspoon of salt; stir to incorporate, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add 4 cups of broth and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt; once the mixture is bubbling at the edges, stir in the bread. Reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the bread has absorbed most of the liquid, creating a porridgelike consistency. The vegetables should be soft. If the bread is still holding its shape after 10 minutes yet has absorbed all the liquid, add some or all of the remaining cup of broth.

Continue cooking, stirring occasionally; very stale bread can take 15 to 20 minutes to achieve the desired texture. Once the soup becomes thick and creamy, add the scapes, cook for 1 minute, then quickly add the garlic-cilantro mixture and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Taste, and add salt as needed. Ladle the hot soup into individual, warmed bowls, crack an egg into each and stir in thoroughly. Serve right away.

Summer squash casserole

Cook time: About 1 hour

Serves 8 to 10

A classic from Julia Reed via The New York Times.

2 pounds yellow summer squash

7 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)

4 slices plain white bread, toasted

24 Ritz crackers, crumbed in food processor

1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated

4 large eggs, beaten

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2 1/2 -quart baking dish. Cut the squash into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cook in boiling, salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Purée in a food processor.

Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and peppers and cook until just tender. Meanwhile, crumb the toast in a food processor, melt remaining butter and toss together.

Mix the squash purée, onions, peppers, garlic, cracker crumbs and cheese. Stir in the eggs, cream, sugar and seasonings. Blend well. Pour into the baking dish. Top with bread crumbs and bake until browned, about 40 minutes.

Zucchini Parmesan

Time: About 1 1/2 hours

Serves 6

Roasting rather than frying the squash lets you cut down on olive oil and the time. Good canned diced tomatoes will work in a pinch. Recipe from The New York Times.

For the tomato sauce:

2 to 2 1/2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

2 to 4 garlic cloves (to taste)

Salt and pepper

1/8 teaspoon sugar

2 sprigs fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

For the zucchini Parmesan:

2 to 2 1/4 pounds zucchini

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes to taste

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

If you have a food mill, quarter tomatoes. If not, peel, seed and chop them. (See below)

To make tomato sauce, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute, and add tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar and basil sprigs. Increase heat to medium-high. When tomatoes are bubbling briskly, stir and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until tomatoes have cooked down and are beginning to stick to pan, 15 to 25 minutes, depending on consistency. Remove basil sprigs; taste and adjust seasoning.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment. Trim ends off zucchini and cut in half crosswise, then into lengthwise slices, about 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick. Season on both sides with salt and pepper and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Arrange zucchini slices on baking sheets in one layer and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Roast for 12 minutes, until lightly browned and easily pierced with a knife. Remove from oven and reduce heat to 375 degrees.

If using a food mill, put sauce through medium blade. If not, pulse sauce in a food processor fitted with steel blade until just coarsely puréed. Stir in chopped basil.

To assemble the dish, oil a 2-quart gratin with olive oil. Spread 1/4 cup tomato sauce over bottom of dish. Arrange a third of the zucchini in an even layer over tomato sauce. Spoon a third of remaining sauce over zucchini and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan. Repeat with 2 more layers, ending with 1/4 cup Parmesan. Drizzle on remaining tablespoon olive oil. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until bubbling and browned on the top and edges. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.