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Recipes and Stories

12 July 2019: Skillet-Steamed Summer Squash

Skillet-Steamed Summer Yellow Crookneck Squash with Vidalia Sweet Onions and Thyme

 

Summer squash of all kinds are a staple in my kitchen throughout the season. There are almost always a few yellow crooknecks or zucchini (or both) in the refrigerator's vegetable bin and often a tub of cooked leftovers right next to the tub of pimiento cheese.

 

More often than not, they're simply cooked by steaming them in their own juices, a method I included in a recent column for the newspaper. It's basically how my grandmother used to cook them, with a few touches of my own added through the years, and is very simple, requiring next to no skill and only a very little attention from the cook. And it works for any summer squash, though it's especially nice for our sweet yellow crooknecks.

 

But while it's simple, there were nuances and details that couldn't be included in the limited space of a print medium, so I wanted to share those extra bits here.

 

My grandmother added a little water to the pan to keep the squash from drying out and scorching on the bottom, but I've learned that they don't need added moisture if they're seasoned with salt as they're layered with the onions, then left to sit for a few minutes so that their abundant moisture is drawn out by the salt. They'll lose more moisture as they cook, so there should be no need to replenish it by adding water to the pan so long as the heat is kept at a moderate level.

 

Like most simple things in the kitchen, success with this depends on the best ingredients you can get. Which means that, unless you grow your own, you'll need get them from a vendor that you know to carry local produce that's only a couple of days from harvest. Shop community farmers' markets and small vendors who sell only fresh, local produce.

 

Here's what to look for.

 

With summer squash, regardless of the type, smaller is better. The best crooknecks have very slender "necks" and "bodies" less than 2½ inches in diameter. Their skins will be smooth, taut, glossy, and firm but delicate, easily pierced with a fingernail. (But don't spoil the vendor's stock by gouging it: you'll be able to tell if it's tender and delicate just by lightly running a finger over it.) Their color will be a fresh, sunny yellow and their stems, a fresh bright green.

 

Pass over squash that are large and have a rough, "warty," and thick skin colored a deep yellow that tends toward orange: They're too mature and not only won't be tender but might even be bitter. Likewise avoid small ones that look dull and washed out, whose stems are yellow, almost white, or withered and brown: they're not fresh and will have lost a good bit of flavor.

 

The delicate skin will blemish easily, so by the time they get to market, a scratch or scrape or two is inevitable, but a heavily mottled surface with a lot of brown scars and scrapes is a surface that has been roughly handled, which means that the inside flesh is likely to be damaged.

 

The seeds should be small and underdeveloped – as Lettice Bryan put it in The Kentucky Housewife back in 1839, no more than tiny blisters. You won't be able to check for that in the market, but if you select small squash with all the above attributes, the seeds will be as they should be.

 

Cook them as soon as you can after you've bought them: remember, they've already been separated from the plant for several days and, while it's not noticeable for a day or so, deterioration actually begins the moment the stem is cut.

 

Skillet-Steamed Yellow Squash with Vidalia Sweet Onions

 

The high water content of Vidalia Sweet onions works to the cook's advantage here, lending its flavorful moisture for steaming both itself and the squash. The key is to let the squash and onions to sit for a few minutes after they're layered in the pan to allow the salt to draw their moisture.

 

The thyme is my addition: My grandmother didn't grow or use it except when it was included in the powdered herb blend marketed as poultry seasoning. But it makes a lovely pairing with yellow squash. You can omit it or try another herb such as oregano, sage, or summer savory.

 

Serves 4-6

 

2 pounds small, young yellow crookneck squash

1 large Vidalia Sweet Onion

Salt

1-2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh oregano or sage, optional

 

1. Gently scrub the squash with a vegetable brush under cold running water and let them drain. Trim the stem and blossom ends, then slice them crosswise into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Trim the root and stem of the onion, halve it lengthwise, peel, and thinly slice it.

 

2. Cover the bottom of a heavy-bottomed 9-10-inch skillet with a third of the onion. Cover it with half the squash and lightly sprinkle them with salt. If you're using thyme, sprinkle some of it over the squash, to taste. Top with another third of the onion, then the remaining squash slices. Sprinkle that layer with salt, thyme (if using), and cover with the remainder of the onion. Cover the pan and leave it for at least 10-15 minutes.

 

3. Put the covered pan over medium heat. When the moisture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, checking occasionally to make sure moisture doesn't completely evaporate, until squash are tender when pierced with fork. The pan isn't likely to get dry, but if it does, add a splash of water. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

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12 July 2019: My Grandmother's Creamed Yellow Squash

MaMa's Country-Style Creamed Summer Squash, with my bit of fresh thyme thrown in, a quintessential taste of her summer table

 

More on the skillet steamed squash from the last essay of that name.

 

The method was the one my maternal grandmother, known to us as MaMa, used to cook the sweet, young yellow crooknecks from my grandfather's garden throughout the summer, although she did it in a deeper saucepan rather than the skillet I use nowadays.

 

But while she did sometimes bring them to the table whole, she more often took them one step further and creamed them.

 

Creaming in this instance doesn't necessarily mean that they're doused with cream, although one could, but rather that they're mashed (as in creamed potatoes) and enriched with some kind of fat, in this case butter.

 

If I had to describe MaMa's summer table in one taste, this would be it.

 

Country-Style Creamed Yellow Squash

 

An unorthodox way of serving this that my grandmother never tried is as a delightful sauce for pasta, although she might've done it had it been suggested to her—she was an adventurous, curious cook to the day she laid down her spoon for the last time. Choose a short, craggy pasta that will hold the little bits of squash. Orecchiette, fusilli, rotini, penne, or elbows are all excellent choices. This will sauce about 1½ pounds of pasta, serving six to eight.

 

Before you begin, have a look at the previous essay from 12 July 2019: Skillet Steamed Summer Squash.

 

Serves 4-6

 

2 pounds small, young yellow crookneck squash

1 large Vidalia Sweet Onion

Salt

1-2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh oregano or sage, optional

2-3 tablespoons best quality unsalted butter

 

1. Scrub the squash gently under cold running water, drain, and pat them dry. Trim the stem and blossom ends, then slice them crosswise into rounds about ¼-inch-thick. Trim the root and stem end of the onion, halve it lengthwise, peel, and thinly slice each half. Separate them into half-moon strips.

 

2. Prepare the squash and onions following the recipe for Skillet-Steamed Summer Squash from the 12 July 2019 post of that name, adding the optional thyme if liked.

 

3. When the squash are tender (easily pierced with fork), remove the lid and raise the heat. Cook, stirring often, until the moisture is almost completely evaporated. Turn off the heat and add 1-2 tablespoons of butter. Using a potato masher, roughly crush the squash, mixing until the butter is melted into them. Stir in another tablespoon of butter and serve immediately.

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19 August 2018: MaMa’s Vegetable Soup

MaMa's Vegetable Soup, photographed for my first book, Classical Southern Cooking, by the incomparable John Carrington.

If my entire life as a cook could be summed in one thing, it would be a lifelong—and so far—failed quest to reproduce my maternal grandmother’s summer vegetable soup. Her kitchen was where I first cooked, and we made many a pot of vegetable soup together during my summer visits. The memory of its taste remains vivid more than half a century later. But somehow, I’ve never been able to get my own to taste and look exactly like hers.

When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured— Read More 

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8 December 2017: MaMa’s Coconut Cake

MaMa's Coconut Cake (from Essentials of Southern Cooking, Lyons Press 2013/Licensed by Shutterstock)

Coconut cake is a traditional Christmas cake in the part of Carolina where I grew up, and both my grandmother’s made it, using basically the same recipe. But my maternal grandmother, known to us as “MaMa” (we pronounced it Maw-Maw) had a special touch that no one else could match.

Hers was one the most extraordinarily moist cakes I’ve ever had. The great secret for its moistness is also the reason it tasted more intensely of coconut than any other.  Read More 

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15 November 2017: MaMa and Salmon Croquettes

MaMa's Salmon Balls or Croquettes if you want to be dainty, served on one of her brown flameware plates with her flatware.

Nostalgia does odd things to us, at times when we’re least expecting it. Last week, while ambling down an aisle at the market, minding my own business and looking for something completely different, nostalgia, in the form of a large can of wild-caught “Traditional Style” salmon, jumped right off the shelf and accosted me.

“Traditional” means it was packed whole, skin, bones, and all. And standing there looking at that neat stack of pink-labeled cans, what my mind’s eye saw was a gray-striped pink cylinder of fish standing tall in a chipped and grazed creamware bowl of my grandmother’s. Suddenly, she was right there beside me, murmuring excitedly, “They’re on sale! Let’s get some!” Read More 

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19 April 2016: Spring Simplicity and Salmon

Sautéed Salmon with Capers

Some of the most welcome sprouts of spring in my backyard are not the wild violets or bulb flowers, but a pair of wild poke sallet plants that have taken over two big terracotta pots by the back door stoop. Even if I didn’t love these greens, I’d still fertilize and nurture them: their bright new leaves bring a smile to my heart every day by reminding me of my grandmother. Read More 

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