Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.
In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy.
This week is all about summer squash.
A long, hot summer with just the right amount of rain is bound to create a situation of disastrous consequences: way too much summer squash in the garden. Zucchini and yellow squash are prolific. You and your family can eat it every night. You can leave bags at the front doors of all your neighbors. You can give it away to strangers. But the plants relentlessly continue to produce more and more. At a certain point in midsummer, you will notice your neighbors crossing to the other side of the street when they see you, and the postman conspicuously looking the other way as he deposits your mail, worrying you might try to foist more summer squash upon them.
Native to North America, squash have long been an important food crop. Food lore has it that Christopher Columbus transported squash seeds from the Caribbean to Europe. It is documented that summer squash have been grown in Europe since the Renaissance.
In the Americas, squash was one of three primary crops for Native Americans, along with corn and beans: the “Three Sisters.” The corn stalk provided a growing structure for climbing beans; the bean vines root the corn to the ground, helping stabilize the stalks. The beans also enriched the soil with nitrogen that fertilized the corn and squash, especially valuable since corn uses a lot of nitrates out of the soil. Lastly, the squash vines acted as living mulch to shade out weed plants and retain moisture in the soil. When the three crops were eaten together, they provided a nutritional balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.
The most common summer squashes are scallop, or patty pan, constricted neck and zucchini. Patty pan is round and flattened like a plate with scalloped edges. They are often white, but also can be pale yellow and green. Constricted neck squash is thinner at the stem end than the blossom end, and is classified as either “crookneck” or “straight neck.” It is often pale yellow. Zucchini squash is cylindrical and is most often bright green. The skin should be crisp and bright.
Summer squash thrives in our hot Southern summers. They belong to the plant family that includes melons and cucumbers, two other plants that also love our subtropical climate. One common mistake that too many gardeners make with summer squash is letting the fruits become too tough before harvesting them. Summer squash must be harvested while young so the rinds and seeds are tender. The plants must be examined over every day or so in hot weather, so you don’t wind up with the dreaded mammoth zucchini bat. Most varieties of summer squash mature from blossom to harvest-ready veggie in four to six days, so pay attention!
What’s a cook to do with an overabundance of squash when stalking the postman isn’t an option? I love to thinly slice summer squash and use them as a raw vegetable “chip” for dips and salsas. I also enjoy making a summer slaw by dressing the vegetables in a light lemon vinaigrette. My grandmother would bread slices of squash in flour and cornmeal and fry them in her cast-iron skillet.
Summer squash stir-fried with a bit of sweet onion is delicious and quick. There are recipes for grilled squash salads, zucchini bread, zucchini soup, various summer squash tarts and even summer squash pies. However, I would be remiss in this post about iconic summer foods if I didn’t feature the staple of dinner-on-the-grounds across the South, the cherished and beloved squash casserole. I’ve made a few small changes to lighten things up a bit, but I am sure you’re going to enjoy it just the same.
Lightened-Up Squash Casserole
Serves 6 to 8
When preparing summer squash dishes, I like to mix the varieties for an interesting contrast of color. Instead of heavy cream or mayonnaise, I’ve lightened up this old-school Southern favorite and suggest preparing a béchamel sauce with low-fat milk, to which I add a combination of reduced fat and regular cheddar cheese. It’s not a low-fat dish by any means, but it is far less fatty and rich than the traditional version - and still tastes delicious. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
1 tablespoon canola oil, more for the dish
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush an ovenproof casserole dish with oil.
Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Place the yellow squash and onion in a steamer basket and set over the boiling water; steam until the squash is just tender. Repeat with the zucchini and steam until just tender. (You can also place all of the squash in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it until tender, about 4 minutes, depending on the strength of your microwave.)
Grate the cheeses and combine. Measure out 1 cup for the sauce and set aside the remaining cheese for the topping. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir until very pale brown. Add the milk and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat. Add the 1 cup of cheese to the sauce. Stir the cheese into the sauce. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
Pour over the squash and onions; stir to combine. Add the eggs, half of the breadcrumbs and the herbs.
Transfer to the prepared casserole. Combine the remaining 1/2 cup breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup of cheese. Sprinkle on top of the squash mixture. Bake until firm and brown on top, 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly before serving.
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