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Recipes and Stories

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


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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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


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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28 July 2018: Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad

Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad, here tucked into Parker House rolls and enjoyed with tea.

Before July slips completely away, here’s one last word on those old-fashioned chopped meat salads, specifically, one that’s quintessential to a Lowcountry summer: shrimp salad.

No one would argue that tomato sandwiches are the primary hallmark of summer for most of us. We eagerly anticipate that first really vine-ripened tomato so we can thickly slice it, tuck it into soft white bread slathered with mayonnaise, and relish it wearing an old shirt (or no shirt) while standing over the sink, because it’s going to drip all over us when we bite into it.

But here in the Lowcountry, the hallmark sandwich of summer is shrimp salad.  Read More 

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8 July 2018: Summer Comfort and Blueberry Crumble

Blueberry Crumble is summer comfort food at its very best.

It’s funny how, when we talk about “comfort food,” we almost always mean something that will provide comfort in the cold season, that keeps us warm and cozy inside when it’s cold and bleak outside: a hearty stew, a big bowl of chili or chicken and dumplings, a savory pot pie or pot roast.

But in the heat of summer, we often need comfort just as much as we do in cold weather, and while we may welcome a warm dish in the midst of a steady string of salads, cold soups, and sandwiches, the things that are so comfortable in the cold season are usually not all that appealing when the heat index soars. Read More 

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16 June 2018: Summer Comfort Food and Ham Salad

Old-Fashioned Ham Salad slathered thickly onto hearty bread

I’ve never been very interested in clever cooking. And the older I get, the less interested in it I become. I’m not talking about being genuinely and intelligently creative or inventive in the kitchen, but about the kind of cooking that’s more about being clever for the sake of novelty, and all too often at the expense of flavor.

If, when one sits down at the table, one is obliged to be cerebral and analytical about what’s in one’s mouth, or wade through a thicket of startling and even conflicting aromas and flavors that crowd one another out, quite frankly it gets completely in the way of any real pleasure.

In short, if I have to think over what’s in my mouth before I can decide whether I like it, in my opinion, the cook has failed at his job.  Read More 

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21 August 2017: More Simple Summer Cooking—Fresh Peach and Blueberry Compote

Fresh Peach and Blueberry Compote with Sourwood Honey

Toward the end of the summer of 1979, while I was in graduate school at Clemson University, my mother came for a short visit. As usual, she left me with a cache of produce from her garden, supplemented by baskets of fragrant late peaches and blueberries from local orchards.

It was my first apartment, and therefore the first kitchen that was wholly my own: usually, such gifts led to a day of curious cooking, but a project deadline loomed and my un-airconditioned apartment was too hot to consider turning on the monstrous avocado-green electric stove that dominated my little kitchen. Read More 

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4 July 2017: Old-Fashioned American Potato Salad

For Independence Day, Old-Fashioned American Potato Salad

Because it's Independence Day and I'm missing my grandmother more than usual today, tonight's dinner includes the very old-fashioned American-style potato salad that MaMa always made, with celery, sweet onion, sweet pickles, hard-cooked eggs, and mayonnaise (she used Duke's) laced with a little yellow mustard for zip and color.

My grandmother diced the potatoes and then boiled them, but I've always boiled the potatoes whole, in their skins, to preserve their flavor and keep them from being sodden.  Read More 

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29 June 2017: Classic Crab Salad

Classic Crab Salad Served the the back shells. Photographed by John Carrington Photography

While lingering with friends at our table after dinner recently, the discussion turned (as it often does here in the South) to food. And as we began to share some Lowcountry specialties with a member of the party who’d recently moved to the South from New England, I was given a sharp reminder of how singular our experiences with food can be. Read More 

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6 July 2013 French Potato Salad

Classic French Potato Salad
The perfect accompaniment for any grilled meat, poultry, or fish, an indispensable component of classic Salade Niçoise, and almost as simple to make as a tossed salad with oil and vinegar dressing, this French version of potato salad is one of the great dishes of French home cooking. It’s also one of the greatest of all summer salads. Read More 
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4 August 2012: More Summer Tomatoes

Young Green beans, which often go by their swanky French name, "haricots verts"--in fresh tomato sauce -- photography by John Carrington, from The Savannah Cookbook
While summer tomatoes are still at their peak, indeed, overflowing in some home gardens, here is another lovely thing to do with them.

I submit this in response to the persistent myth that Southerners historically had no subtlety with the vegetable pot: it comes from a late nineteenth century Savannah manuscript.  Read More 
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31 July 2011: MaMa’s Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash

My Grandmother's Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash, Photograph by Timothy Hall
There’s never a time that I don’t miss my grandmother, but summer is probably when I miss her most. That was when, for two wonder-filled weeks, we each got to stay with her all by ourselves. The best part for me was the time spent with MaMa in the kitchen, making homemade vegetable soup and pimiento cheese, frying chicken, doughnuts and turnovers, and baking—even in the dead heat of summer with no air conditioning.

Of all the things we cooked together, nothing recalls those days more poignantly or delectably than one of MaMa’s great specialties: young swan-necked yellow squash, scooped out and filled with its own pulp mixed with stale crumbs and seasoned simply with sliced green onions, salt, and pepper.

Ever since the first time I crumbled the bread for them fifty years ago, MaMa’s squash have been a regular part of my summer table—although, through those years, I’ve strayed from the simple elegance of her formula, adding at various times bacon, prosciutto, seafood, sausage, sage, thyme, Parmigiano, Cheddar, and garlic. But when it comes down to it, if the squash are good to begin with, all that just gilded the lily and got in the way.

To achieve perfection as my grandmother did, choose four medium-sized yellow crookneck squash that are impeccably fresh. They should have clear, glossy-smooth skins and stems that are plump and bright green. Wash them carefully under cold running water and steam them whole in a steamer basket set over at an inch of simmering water until barely tender, about 12-15 minutes, depending on size. Rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking and let them cool enough to handle.

Position rack in center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Generously butter a nine-by-twelve-inch baking dish. Lay the squash on a cutting board with their crooknecks to one side so that they lie flat. Slice off about a quarter of their tops, chop it coarsely, and put it in a ceramic or glass bowl. With a melon baller or teaspoon, carefully scoop the pulp and seeds from the squashes, leaving their outer walls intact. Gently squeeze the excess moisture out of the pulp, chop it, and add it to the bowl. Invert the squash shells over a rack and let them drain for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, trim, wash, and thinly sliced enough green onion to make half a cup. Add them to the squash pulp along with a generous cup or so of finely crumbled stale but still soft biscuits, dinner rolls, or loaf bread. Season to taste with salt and a fresh grinding of pepper. Lightly beat an egg until it’s well mixed and just moisten the filling with it; you may not need all of it. Mix well and spoon it evenly into the shells, mounding the excess up on the top. Sprinkle the tops generously with more crumbs, gently pat them in, and put the squash in the prepared dish. Cut thin slices of butter over the tops and bake until hot through and golden brown, about half an hour.

Let the most intense flush of heat dissipate for a few minutes, then sit down with a glass of sweet tea and taste the pure essence of summer on a fork. Read More 
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