Although zucchini can be found year round at grocery stores, summer squash really is a thing of summer. At least, that is when it is at its best here on the central coast of California. The season starts in mid-spring with the advent of squash blossoms, and then the fruits (the actual “squash”) show up in late spring-early summer, and they last until fall, sometimes as late as Thanksgiving.
Some say that “summer” is not a good name for these squash since they grow year round, and you cannot use that name to define them. The defining characteristics of summer squash are the tender skin that can be eaten, and the relatively high moisture content of the flesh as compared to winter squash. However, the tender skin and moisture content makes it more perishable compared to winter squash, which can literally be stored over winter without any ill effects.
Another trait summer squash share is the fact that they are eaten immature, before the seeds show up. Mature summer squash are much larger, develop large well-defined seeds, and the skin, while not as tough as a butternut or kabocha squash, is still tougher than an immature squash. Although not as sweet as winter squash, these characteristics result in a more tender squash than winter squash that is quicker cooking.
Many Ways to Cook Summer Squash
When it comes to cooking summer squash, pretty much anything goes, although boiling or prolonged exposure to lots of water will render them mushy and bitter. For some recipes, a quick dunk into boiling water or stock will be just enough to start the cooking process, such as for a sauté or braise. Sometimes steaming is just the ticket, especially if you want them lightly cooked, as when you might be saucing them with a quick sauce of fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic. Steaming squash until just done — cooked through but still with a little bite — makes them the perfect vehicle for a fresh tomato sauce. Let cooked squash cool and then sauce with fresh tomato sauce, toss in cubes of buffalo mozzarella or steamed shrimp and this makes for a perfect supper salad.
Summer squash are great on the grill as long as you remember to oil them and not to slice them too thinly — too thin and the squash will disintegrate on the grill. If you like thick slices, cook to mark and flavor the outside of the squash, then move to a cooler part of the grill to finish over indirect heat. Squash also works well as part of mixed vegetable kebabs, cut into slices or chunks.
Summer squash are a gift when it comes to gratins — just slice and load with herbs and plenty of olive oil for the most basic dish. If you have soffrito in the freezer, layer the dish with some and add the squash. Oil and bake, then serve hot or room temperature. Squash plays well with other vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and mushrooms. Learning the cooking times of each squash is important, too. You’ll want to vary the thickness of the slices depending on the type of squash so they cook through in the same amount of time.
Summer squash lends itself to roasting quite handily, and sautés beautifully. You can sauté until caramelized, or just a little brown, then add a shot of liquid to the pan and cover to steam finish. Battering or bread-crumbing and then deep frying is also a fine way to present these, and is popular with kids as well as adults. This method is great when you have a sauce to dip them in such as a tomato sauce or a creamy dressing. Summer squash can be made into a “jam” as a condiment for other things, or into a “carpaccio.” Use it instead of pasta for some dishes. It can even be used in desserts such as zucchini bread and chocolate brownies. Pattypan squash are great for scooping out and stuffing, and then baking.
And, be sure to try squash blossoms. They have a delicate yet distinctive flavor that is wonderful. Try them stuffed with cheese and battered and fried or baked. Scrambled into eggs or added to frittata and quiche, shredded over soup — all excellent. They are also great in grilled cheese sandwiches with pesto.
How to Select and Store Summer Squash
When selecting summer squash there are few things to look for. The squash should feel dense and heavy in the hand, and be firm. Avoid spongy feeling specimens or those that flex. Avoid those that are bruised (although Cousa almost always has some bruises and scars) or cut. When looking at the squash the colors should be vibrant and almost glow, even the duller colored types. Also, look at the end of the squash away from the stem-there is a circular “scar” there-the whiter it is the fresher the squash. When choosing blossoms, look for those that are full looking and bright, not collapsing, wrinkling, or brown and discolored. Use the blossoms within a day or two, but if you must store them, keep them in the plastic tub they come in wrapped in paper towels and a plastic bag, or transfer to a plastic tub with a tight sealing lid.
Keep the squash in a bag in the refrigerator, but if you are going to use them later in the week, wrap them in paper towels. Contact with wet plastic can cause the squash to start to rot. Don’t keep them in the coldest part of the refrigerator; rather store them where you keep lettuce.
There are many types of squash available at the farmers market, and several farmers offer a nice selection. Borba Farms has regular sized, “baby” squash, and blossoms; Mello-Dy, Nagamine, and Bar-D carry squash and blossoms; Pinnacle, Cortez Farm, Molino Creek, Webb’s, and others also have summer squash. Look for zucchini, Butterstick or yellow zucchini, Cousa (a pale green Middle East variety), Costata Romanesca (green and paler green striped with ridges-stays firm, and has a sweet nutty flavor), Patty-pan in green, yellow, and pale dusty green, yellow crooknecks, and sometimes the big round tromboncini and others. When it comes to summer squash, the farmers markets offer an embarrassment of riches for not much money.
RECIPES: Summer Squash Tips, Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Ricotta Grilled Buffalo Mozzarella Sandwich with Squash Blossoms and Pesto, Provençal Braised Summer Squash with Cured Olives, Lemony Grilled Summer Squash. Caramelized Baby Summer Squash with Herbed Breadcrumbs, Squash Pretending to Be Pasta, Grilled Summer Vegetable Frittata, Squash Blossom Quesadilla, Summer Potato, Zucchini and Tomato Stew, Papoutsakia (Stuffed Zucchini), Mediterranean Tart, Zukes for Yukes, Zucchini Bread, Green and Golden Zucchini Thread Salad (Hobak Namul), Sweet and Spicy Avocado Soup, Caramelized Zucchini, Ratatouille