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My neighbors love me.

Sure, I'll Take That Squash, I say. But I'm the lucky one.

August 09, 2000|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

There are all kinds of stories about people who sneak over in the dead of night and leave squash on your doorstep. Some of them may even be true. Mine is.

Bill is my squash neighbor. It used to be he'd call early in the morning and ask in his gruff voice. "Want some squash?" (which, when you think about it, is a helluva way to wake up). He never identified himself; he didn't have to. And the answer was always yes.

I guess he figured that out because he never calls anymore. He just drops them off. When I go out to get the paper in the morning, there they are, foundlings on my doorstep.

Though the theme of most squash stories is zucchini as a forsaken orphan, mine is different. I'll take all that Bill can deliver. I gather the little darlings in my arms and I take them into my home. And then I cut them up and I cook them.

People seem to think squash is boring. I don't understand that. Sure, it doesn't have the sex appeal of a ripe backyard tomato. Nor is it nearly so mysterious as a black-robed eggplant. But it is so much more flexible. There are a number of squashes and you can use them in a number of ways.

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First, of course, there is the familiar deep green zucchini, which seems to come in two sizes--it's either as small as your little finger, or it's as big as a baseball bat. It also comes in gold, which makes a nice color contrast.

Especially at markets that cater to Latino shoppers, you'll also find a grayish-green zucchini that is fun to play with. It has a denser flesh and holds its shape better. It's the zucchini you find floating in a big bowl of caldo.

Then there is the gracefully shaped yellow or crookneck squash. This squash never seems to get too big. Instead, when it gets too old, the skin gets thick and hard. If you've got a question, nick a corner with your fingernail.

While most squash are elongated, you'll also find little round ones with scalloped edges. These are called pattypan and they come in both green and yellow.

Though there is a fashion for barely cooking squash, I refuse to join in. To me, for squash to develop its full flavor, it must be cooked thoroughly. This doesn't mean boiling it to the point that it is falling apart, but it does mean that it should be softened through to the center. The point of a sharp knife should slip through with hardly any resistance.

Let's start with the most basic way to cook squash: glazing. This is a kind of braise, treating squash much as you would a tough cut of meat. I like it best with tender small squash.

Cut the squash into pieces and put them in a cold skillet with just enough water to coat the bottom of the pan--a little bit of water helps to dissolve the squash's tough cellulose walls. Add a little fat (butter for yellow squash, olive oil for zucchini) and a pinch of salt. Cover the pan and put it on a medium fire. Cook, shaking the pan to keep the squash from sticking, until it begins to soften, 5 to 10 minutes.

You'll know it's just about ready when you can see that the outside of the squash has softened, but the inside is still a little firm. At this point, remove the lid and turn the heat up to high. All the liquid--the water you've added and the juice exuded from the squash--will bubble and evaporate to a flavorful glaze and the squash will start to brown.

Of course, you could add a little crushed garlic at the start, and maybe some red pepper flakes, too--especially with zucchini. With yellow squash, you don't need anything more than a little freshly cracked black pepper to offset the vegetable's natural butteriness.

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Squash are also great grilled. Cut them in quarters and brush them with an olive oil-garlic-lemon juice combination. As soon as they come off the grill, layer them on the serving platter with fresh herbs, such as slivered basil or thyme. The hot squash will pick up just enough flavor to be a little more interesting.

Then there are gratins. These have the added benefit of being a good way to use squash that has gotten a little overgrown.

Slice the squash as thin as you can (I use a plastic Benriner mandoline, available at Japanese hardware stores). Distribute about a third of it across the bottom of a heavily buttered gratin dish. Season with salt. Repeat using the rest of the squash. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and put it in a 400-degree oven. Check it every 15 minutes or so.

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While the squash is baking, grind whatever stale bread you've got lying around in a food processor with 1 or 2 peeled garlic cloves. You can add some freshly grated Parmesan cheese, too, if you want. When the squash is tender, remove the foil and spread the bread crumbs over the top. Dot with butter or drizzle with oil and return the dish to the oven until the top is delicately browned. It will have the most delicious browned bread-garlicky-squashy smell.

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