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Garden of Gourds

Summer squash–zucchini and its relatives in the cucurbita family–strike me as the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: they “don’t get no respect.” Backyard garden standards nearly as common as tomatoes, ubiquitous at farmers markets, summer squash are often the last items chosen, the go-to vegetable choice only when other options are used up, or unfamiliar.

Too often zucchini are ignored in the garden too. They’re such cute little things, as big as your finger, when they first form out of the blossom’s ovule, their showy flower still attached. Let them get a bit bigger before picking, we tell ourselves, and then a few days later, those little green fingers are the size of Fungo bats. Suddenly, the garden is awash in oversized squash, neighbors hide when you approach with more giveaways and the prospect of a dozen loaves of zucchini bread looms.

But alternative outcomes are possible when the glut of summer squash arrives. Like most vegetables, squash are edible at all stages of development—even the blossoms can be stuffed and fried—and usually the younger the squash, the sweeter and less seedy. Squash can be eaten raw in salads, lightly sautéed in butter or oil, steamed or boiled, or roasted. Pick early and often in the garden, and go for the cute little guys in the market.

My two favorite ways to cook zucchini or crookneck or yellow zucchini are to slice into 1/4-inch thick discs, sauté in oil with chopped onion and diced red or yellow bell pepper, stirring and tossing until the squash is softened and lightly browned. I then garnish with minced basil or parsley, and perhaps a splash of balsamic. Simple.

Or, I halve them lengthwise, place on a baking sheet, brush generously with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and oregano, and roast at 350 degrees until very soft. Served warm or at room temperature, roasting really brings out their sweetness.

Globe zucchini are the most charming of all, in my opinion. Here are two suggestions for using them in tasty dishes: the first as an entrée, the second an appetizer.

Stuffed globe zucchini or pattypan squash
I am a sucker for these little round squash, which come in a variety of colors and sizes. Choose one about the size of a softball for stuffing for main courses. Serves 4 as a main course, along with side salad and bread.

  • 4 globe zucchini
  • Salt and pepper
  1. To hollow out zucchini, slice off the stem no more than 1-inch down. Set top aside. With a small knife, cut around the inside of the squash, about a 1/4-inch in. Using a spoon (I find a grapefruit “spoon” with a serrated edge ideal for this), scrape out the inside of the squash, leaving about a 1/4-inch of shell all around.
  2. Set squash in a pot, fill with water to about 2/3 way up the sides of the squash, and fill squash with water, to make them stable in the pot. Bring water to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook squash until a knife easily penetrates, 10 minutes or more. Remove from water bath and let cool before filling.

Vegetarian filling:
Actually, this makes that rare find, a fairly substantial and filling vegan dish.

  • 1 cup couscous or bulgur
  • 1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, any color, cored and seeded and chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  1. Place couscous or bulgur in a bowl, stir in the raisins or cranberries, and cover by 1-inch or so with boiling water. Stir, and let sit until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
  2. In a skillet, heat oil, and when shimmery, add chopped onion, pepper and garlic. Sauté over medium heat until onion is softened, 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Fluff grains with a fork and add to the skillet. Add minced parsley, cinnamon and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir to mix well. Use to fill squash shells.

Meat filling:

  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1/2 pound ground beef, pork or turkey
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil or oregano
  • 1 small onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 rib celery, trimmed, strings removed and chopped
  • 1/2 of a green or red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup cooked rice
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce (canned is fine, as is bottled spaghetti sauce)
  1. Heat oil in a skillet until shimmering. Add ground meat of choice and cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until beginning to color. Add basil or oregano, onion, garlic, celery and pepper. Continue cooking, stirring, until vegetables are softened and meat begins to brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in rice and tomato sauce.
  2. Place cooked squash shells on a baking sheet and sprinkle insides with salt and pepper. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Fill squash shells with filling of choice. Place in oven and heat through, 10 minutes or so.
  4. To serve, perch reserved squash top on filling at a jaunty angle.

Zucchini, tomato and mozzarella stacks
For a neat little appetizer, use smaller globe zucchini, about the size of a baseball, and choose tomatoes about the same size.

  • 4 small globe zucchini
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 or 2 tomatoes
  • 1 ball of fresh mozzarella
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons pesto
  • Fresh basil and parsley for garnish
  1. Slice off stem and bottom ends of zucchini and discard or compost. Slice each zucchini into 3 or 4 discs about 1/2-inch thick, depending on the size of zucchini. Brush slices liberally with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and sauté over medium-high heat until softened and just turning brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from pan, drain on paper towels and let cool.
  2. Slice tomatoes into discs. Slice ball of mozzarella into discs.
  3. Assemble stacks: zucchini disc on bottom, then a tomato slice, then a slice of mozzarella, then zucchini, tomato, mozzarella and end with a zucchini. Repeat for four stacks.
  4. Mix pesto into remaining olive oil, adjusting ratio of pesto and olive oil so you have a pourable consistency with a mild but noticeable pesto flavor.
  5. Place one stack on a plate and drizzle with pesto oil. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and parsley.

Read the entire Fall 2014 issue of Food & Dining Magazine, here: http://issuu.com/foodanddiningmagazine/docs/f_d_fall14