Summer Squash Makes a Perfect Seasonal Treat
When I was 10 years old and delivering the Oakland Tribune to make a few pennies of pocket change, an elderly woman in my neighborhood let me plant a vegetable garden in her backyard. Early on, we grew a boatload of zucchini and gave it away to everyone, including the nice folks on my paper route. One day, one of my customers said she would make me some pickled zucchini. I’d never had it before. But months went by and suddenly it was December, and I still didn’t have my jar of pickled zucchini. And now she had a life-sized Santa Claus in the front window of her house that was so eerie that I rearranged my paper route so that her street would come at the end of my route, toward dawn, instead of 4 a.m. when it was pitch black and that Santa looked so creepy.
One morning, I heard someone behind me down the street: It was that Santa, running up the street after me! I dropped my bag of papers and ran as fast as I could. “Hey, Danny!” a voice called out. I turned back, and the Santa, breathing hard, pulled his beard away from his face. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “My wife wanted me to give this to you.” He had a jar of picked zucchini in his hand. To this day, when I see a Santa mannequin, I think of pickled zucchini, which turned out to be pretty darned good, I must say.
Back in those days home pickling (like canning and preserving) was a common practice among older generations. But its popularity waned, and grilling has become the “in” thing with just about any vegetable or even fruit. Summer squash, including zucchini, also known as Italian squash, is right up there at the top of the charts. But the choices are endless, from grocery-store basics like yellow crookneck and pale-green patty pan (which was simply called summer squash back in the old days) to backyard varieties and farmers markets favorites. Sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when I was a young man in the produce department, scaloppini squash made its commercial debut, with sunburst squash soon to follow, adding color to my display-rack palette.
Today, a few of my favorite varieties showing up at specialty stores and farmers markets are “comeback kids,” like the ronde de Nice—also called French round, tondo di Piacenza, globe squash or eight ball. Probably the densest and heaviest of the summer varieties—with firm, compact and hardly noticeable seed cavities—this squash is a griller’s favorite and a stuffer’s delight. And within this family are other shapes and colors—egg-shaped, round pale-green and even yellow-skinned, as well. Some growers and ethnic groups have their own names for these varieties.
Other less common varieties of summer squash are white (also known as gray) zucchini, a paler green zeppelin-shaped squash common in the Mediterranean, and romanesca, a pale-green, slender and dense zucchini that is less watery than the common “zuke.” It works well sliced into coin shapes and sautéed with fava beans and garlic, or cut into larger pieces and added to kabobs, and its crisp texture makes it enjoyable raw, sliced thin and added to salads.
Summer squashes should be used in their infant stages; if left on the vine too long, they become as big as winter squashes—and tough and inedible. But they do produce a delicacy that always melts in your mouth: the male squash blossom. Known in Mexico as flor de calabaza, or pumpkin flower, the squash blossom is harvested mostly from small summer squash varieties, as well as pumpkins. This tender flower can be stuffed with meat and fried, used in mouthwatering casseroles, salads and squash blossom soup or simply fried on its own. Although they are not stocked in supermarkets, squash blossoms can be found at specialty stores and farmers markets.
With the grilling season in full swing, take advantage of the bounty from such California growers as Castaneda Brothers Produce (Suisun), Balakian Farms (Reedley) and local favorite, Mark Dwelly Farms (Brentwood), and be sure to experiment with some of the uncommon summer squashes (I lean heavily towards the globe varieties). Try marinating them with some of the blossoms and tossing them on the grill, sautéing them with a little garlic and olive oil or maybe even, ahem, pickling them. Whatever your method, these tasty squashes will reward your cravings for the perfect summer treat.
—By Dan Avakian