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Recipes and Stories

30 August 2017: Old-Fashioned Squash Casserole

A Southern Classic: Old-Fashioned Squash Casserole

Before summer passes, some thoughts on an old seasonal classic.

One of the loveliest standard dishes for those great old Southern institutions—church covered-dish suppers, dinners-on-the-grounds, and buffet spreads for family reunions and funerals—is squash casserole. Variously known as a casserole, pudding, and soufflé (those last mainly when it has eggs in it), it’s popularity as a covered-dish offering probably owes a lot to the fact that it was cheap (the main ingredient came right out of the back garden), easy to make (especially on short notice), and delicious with just about anything.

While it’s most often paired with fried chicken, ham, and pork barbecue (the meat standards for the above-mentioned crowd-feeds), it’s just as good with almost any poultry, beef, fish, seafood, or, for that matter, all by itself. It used to be strictly seasonal, appearing only in the summer, when our gardens were producing sweet yellow crooknecks like mad. And that’s when it’s still best, since out-of-season squash often has a bitter edge.

Its variations are practically endless. Some contain bread crumbs, some saltines, butter crackers, or packaged stuffing mix; others have no filler at all. Some are bound with a milk and egg custard, others, sour cream, mayonnaise, and, of course, a can of cream-of-something soup. There are even recipes that employ a blend of several or all of those things.

Some are lively with herbs or hot pepper, others are exquisitely plain, with little more than salt, pepper, and maybe a bit of onion. While old recipes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rarely called for cheese, most modern ones do—and it can be anything from sharp cheddar (the old-time Southern cook’s Parmesan) to genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, Swiss, and cream cheese.

As the South continues to change, those institutions where these casseroles were a standard have become less common and, where they still exist, have for better or worse changed along with the region. But never mind: we needn’t wait for a church supper, funeral, neighborhood block party or any other crowd-feed to have squash casserole. It’s a perfect make-ahead supper dish, whether there’s company at the table or just the family.

Old-Fashioned Squash Casserole

This can actually be made ahead and reheated in a 350-degree oven. You can also not bother with the reheating: It often turns up on covered dish supper tables barely warm or even room temperature, and is still delicious.

Make it your own with a generous tablespoon of minced fresh herbs (thyme, sage, and summer savory are all nice with yellow squash); substitute about half a cup of thinly-sliced green onions for the yellow onion; and if you’re especially partial to cheese, add a tablespoon or two of grated cheddar or Parmigiano-Reggiano over each layer of squash when you’re assembling, but do keep in mind that it’s squash and not the cheese that’s the star here.

Serves 4

1¼ pounds small yellow squash
½ medium yellow onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
16-18 saltine crackers
Whole black pepper in a mill
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk or half whole milk and half light cream
½ cup (about 2 ounces) grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Scrub the squash under cold running water and drain well. Trim the stem and blossom ends and slice them ¼-inch thick. Prepare a pot fitted with a steamer insert with at least 1 inch of water, making sure that the water doesn’t touch the insert. Remove the insert, cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, layer the squash and onion in the insert, lightly salting each layer. Return the insert to the pot, cover, and steam until the squash are barely tender, about 8 minutes. Uncover, remove the insert, and let the squash cool enough to handle.

3. Generously butter a 1½ quart oval or rectangular casserole. Finely crumble 3-4 saltines over the bottom of the dish. Cover with a layer of squash and onions, season lightly with pepper, and finely crumble 4-6 saltines evenly over them. Continue with squash, onions, pepper, and more crumbled saltines until all the squash and onions are in the dish.

4. Break the eggs into a 4 cup measuring cup or bowl with a pouring spout and lightly beat them. Beat in the milk and pour this evenly over the casserole. Sprinkle the cheese over the top and then crumble about 4 saltines over it (enough to lightly cover the top with crumbs). Dot with butter and bake in the center of the oven until it’s puffed and browned, about half an hour. Let it settle a few minutes before serving.

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