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, steamed, 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.