The beginning of our first full summer in Virginia found me out in the yard, still trying to beat into submission the overgrowth that had taken over the garden. It hasn't been without rewards: beneath the wisteria, brambles, wild grapes, and poison ivy (that I swear sprout new growth the instant one's back is turned) lie the remains of a garden that was once a showplace.
Still, it's been hard not to get overwhelmed, so as the heat increases and my stamina lags, my focus has turned to small projects close to the house. One such project has been the filling of three barren planting beds on the back terrace.
The first order of business for this cook of course was an herb garden. The largest of the beds, next to the old greenhouse foundation at the south end of the pavement was just right for that. It's in full sun from early morning until mid-afternoon and isn't too far from a water source and the kitchen. Since its soil was compacted and mostly barren, all it needed to be made ready was to pull up a couple of dandelions, turn and aerate the soil, and supplement it with a little fresh potting soil and fertilizer.
My fingers and toes are crossed: I didn't inherit my mother's green thumb, and she's not here to guide me; my luck with potted herbs has always been hit or miss. But so far, my little bed of basil, lavender, rosemary, oregano, parsley, sage, and thyme is flourishing. With a few potted flowering plants and a handsome young lemon tree from our girls added in, the terrace that once was a sad wasteland half-buried in creeping crabgrass, leaf litter, pine straw, and ivy, is once again inviting. All it needs to complete it is a new brick border, restoration of the flower border on the lawn side, and some vintage garden furniture.
As summer heat sets in, it's time to take a breather from garden archeology, learn to pace myself, and spend time out of the sun bonding with my sunny yellow kitchen—with, of course, some of those herbs from my very own garden.
Summer Squash Casserole with Gruyere and Thyme
One advantage of age and experience is that one can just cook, and know when to leave well-enough alone. When some handsome local summer squash turned up in the market, I knew just what to do with the first cuttings of thyme from my little herb garden.
1¼ pounds yellow summer squash
½ medium yellow onion, trimmed, peeled, and very thinly sliced
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 slices white sandwich bread, crust removed, torn into soft crumbs
Whole black pepper in a mill
2-3 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 large egg
1 cup whole milk
½ cup (about 2 ounces) grated Gruyere
3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Scrub the squash under cold running water and drain them. Trim the stem and blossom ends and slice them a little less than ¼-inch thick. If they're really fat, split them lengthwise before slicing them.
2. Put a tablespoon of the butter in a lidded 9-to-10-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Cover the bottom with the onion. Lightly sprinkle it with salt, then top with a single layer of squash, season lightly with salt and, especially if the squash aren't very fresh and naturally sweet, a pinch of sugar. Add the remaining squash and again lightly season with salt and sugar. Cover and cook until they're tender, about 8 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure the natural moisture they've shed doesn't completely evaporate. If it does, add a splash of water as needed.
3. Lightly butter a 1½ quart oval or rectangular casserole. Cover the bottom with half of the soft crumbs. Spread half the squash and onions over them, season lightly with pepper, and scatter half the thyme and the remaining soft crumbs over them. Add the remaining squash and onions, season with pepper, and sprinkle it with the rest of the thyme.
4. Break the egg into a 2-4 cup measuring cup or bowl and lightly beat it. Add the milk and a pinch of salt and beat until smoothly mixed, then pour it evenly over the casserole until it just covers the squash (you may not need quite all of it). Sprinkle the Gruyere over the top.
5. Wipe out the skillet in which the squash and onion were cooked and put in the remaining butter. Melt it over medium-low heat, then sprinkle in the dry breadcrumbs and stir until they're evenly coated. Stir it over the heat for about a minute, then turn off the heat and sprinkle the crumbs over the casserole. Bake in the center of the oven until puffed, set at the center, and golden brown, about half an hour. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes before serving, but serve it warm.