Suddenly it is summer at the market. Shaded tents now brim with green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, even corn. More stalls are piled with cherries and peaches and sweet strawberries.
But the summer squash appeals to me most: zucchini and its cousins, Pattypan, Yellow crookneck and Ronde de Nice.
My mother’s Midwestern city kitchen didn’t really feature fresh vegetables, only fresh-frozen, so zucchini was never an option our table. Upon leaving home, visiting a small farm in rural California, I tasted freshly picked summer squash, steamed with butter and fresh dill. It was a revelation. So much better than anything called zucchini that I had experienced, and perfectly cooked, not too soft.
I also learned how to choose the very best zucchini and summer squash in the patch. Not too small — the so-called baby zucchini are cute, but often slightly bitter. Pick the next size up, a little bit plumper, but still firm, with shiny, pale skin. If you want squash blossoms, pick the males, the ones with the long stems. Female blossoms quickly bear fruit. Forget about the giant overgrown squashes; give those to the chickens. There will be new squash ready to pick tomorrow.
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If you have a zucchini patch, you’re all set. Otherwise, get thee to a farm stand or greenmarket for just-picked squash. There really is a difference. The taste of new-cut summer squash is appreciatively sweeter, even when eaten raw. Grocery-store zucchini is grown to a particular length so it fits in a box for shipping; at the market, there are squashes in every color from celadon green to sunflower yellow, and in a variety of shapes to match.
To make that simple steamed zucchini, put the chopped squash in a shallow saucepan with an inch of water, a pat of butter and a pinch of salt. Cook rapidly, covered, for five minutes, until just done, and a fork easily pierces the flesh. Serve it sprinkled with freshly chopped dill or basil and some of the buttery juices.
When you tire of steamed zucchini, move on to zucchini pancakes, zucchini pickles and fried zucchini coins. Put summer squash in your succotash, your ratatouille, your frittata.
Or give your zucchini a touch of elegance and make these savory individual soufflés for a great first course. The soft flavors of cheese, egg, squash blossom and summer squash mingle beautifully.
ZUCCHINI AND SQUASH BLOSSOM SOUFFLÉS
Makes 6 to 8 small soufflés (using six 8-ounce or eight 6-ounce ramekins)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing ramekins
¼ cup flour
1½ cups whole milk or half-and-half, more as needed
1 thyme sprig
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and pepper
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, grated, or a mixture with a fourth part Parmesan
1 tablespoon finely cut chives
2 tablespoons rough-chopped basil
6 to 8 squash blossoms, tough part removed, torn into ½-inch strips
1. Butter ramekins well and set aside. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
2. 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.
3. Meanwhile, sprinkle grated zucchini with 1 teaspoon 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).
4. 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.
5. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Stir a fourth 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 baking tray. Bake an extra 10 to 15 minutes, until tops are nicely browned and a small knife inserted emerges dry. Serve immediately.