30 June 2021: Summer Squash and Pasta
Last week I was finally able to visit my parents, whom I had not seen since December of 2019. It was bittersweet: Finally seeing and actually touching them was undiluted joy; witnessing the toll that age and pandemic isolation have taken was heartbreaking. Hearing it in their voices on the telephone, and in regular reports from my brother, was one thing, but experiencing it in person was something else altogether.
One of the single saddest things of all was that my mother is no longer able to do the thing she loves best: garden. Her large vegetable garden plot is now indistinguishable from the rest of the yard. And there was not one single green vegetable to be found in that house.
Still, it was good to actually see them and, if only for a few days, take some of the burden off my brother, and do things like shop for groceries, do some heavy housework that they can no longer manage, and cook regular meals for them. Especially that last.
The cooking was simple and familiar, and, until a grocery run could be made, an exercise in improvisation with what they had on hand in the pantry and the handful of things that I'd brought with me.
Partly because it was on hand, and partly because it's the thing I like improvising with best, we had a lot of pasta. One of the best of those improvisations happened when I found slender, taut, young zucchini in the market. They were almost as fresh and lovely as the ones my mother once grew. I brought them straight home, simply scrubbed, trimmed, and cut them into small sticks, then simmered them with onions and garlic in olive oil, and tossed them with thin spaghetti, my father's favorite pasta.
When I finally got back home, it was a couple of days before I could face going out again to the grocery. A rummage through my own refrigerator produced a couple of yellow summer squash, a handful of green onions, a small packet of fresh sage, and two lonely strips of bacon. They were all in good shape, but rapidly approaching the "use me or lose me" stage, so in the same improvising spirit, over pasta they made a very nice one-dish supper.
Thin Spaghetti with Yellow Summer Squash
Squash of all kinds are ideal vegetables for pasta sauce, but our sunny yellow summer squash is especially nice—better, in many ways, than zucchini. Here, the flavors and cooking method are typically Southern, but they're also familiar to many Italian kitchens.
2 medium yellow summer squash
2 strips thick-cut bacon (I use applewood smoked)
4 small scallions or 2 large
1 medium clove garlic
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Sugar, if needed
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
6 ounces thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta
½ tablespoon unsalted butter
About ½ cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Bring 3 quarts water to a rolling boil in a heavy-bottomed 4-to-5-quart pot. Meanwhile, scrub the squash under cold running water, trim the blossom and stem ends, and slice it very thinly, cutting the fattest part in half before slicing it.
2. Put the bacon in a 10-11-inch heavy-bottom skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until its fat is rendered and it's nicely browned. Add the scallion, stir well, and add the squash. Sauté until the scallion is translucent and the squash is beginning to wilt but not colored. Add the garlic, toss well, and season with salt and pepper. If the squash isn't as naturally sweet as you'd like, stir in a large pinch of sugar.
3. Continue cooking until the squash is tender but not browned, about 3-4 minutes longer. Don't let it brown: if it begins to do so before it's tender, turn down the heat and add a splash of water. Add the herbs, toss, and let it cook half a minute longer, then remove it from the heat.
4. When the pasta cooking water is boiling, stir in a small handful of salt and the spaghetti. Cook, stirring frequently, until it is al dente, firm to the bite but not pasty and raw tasting in the middle. Use the package directions as a rough guide and start checking it a minute before the recommended cooking time. Reserve a few spoonfuls of the cooking water and drain it quickly.
5. When the pasta is almost done, return the sauce to medium-low heat and gently reheat it, stirring occasionally. When it's hot through, remove it from the heat once again. When the pasta is done and drained, add it and the butter to the sauce and toss it until it's evenly coated. If it seems too dry, add a couple of spoonfuls of the reserved pasta cooking liquid. Add 2 tablespoons of Parmigiano and toss. If it seems dry, add another spoonful of cooking liquid. Add another spoonful of cheese, toss, and serve at once, offering the remaining cheese separately.