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Summer Squash Gets Some Respect

Ah, summer squash, the blessing and curse of home gardeners — or so I hear.

As the inhabitant of a fifth-floor condo with nary a balcony to grow a container garden, I can only dream of the slew of squash that would spring from my own patch of earth, if I had one.

Along with sweet, jammy strawberries and delightfully ugly heirloom tomatoes, a backyard bounty can yield more squash than you would need to feed a team of vegetarian Olympic soccer players.

Summer squash, in fact, grows so quickly and in such abundance under even the palest of green thumbs, that finding ways to eat it (or friends to hoist it upon) could become a competitive sport.

Zucchini and its kin are the sleeper hits among garden blockbusters such as tomatoes and berries. They may not be greeted with raves when you grill the first harvest of yellow crooknecks, but summer squash have the versatility and easy-going nature to sustain a long, successful run in your kitchen.

So, when I hear the trowel-and-hoe set grousing about "drowning" in zucchini or being "buried alive" by pattypans, I turn red with indignation. As they commiserate wearily over the tedium of frying yet another batch of squash blossoms, I am gnashing my teeth — and getting slightly green with envy. Even gardeners who adore their prolific crops would probably consider me naive, but I can't help wishing for their affliction.

How to explain the spunk and staying power of summer squash in gardens year after year? For starters, this vegetable is not particular. An ancient crop native to North America, it grows happily from East to West during the warm months and may be planted any time after the last frost, from early spring through midsummer. It grows like a bush but doesn't spread like winter squash, which stretches its vines over everything in its path.

Also, summer squash is the ultimate instant gratification of the gardening world, ready for harvest just four to eight days after flowers appear. The most it demands is to be picked before leaving adolescence, when it is most sweet and tender, with small seeds and thin skin. Even if you do happen to blink and miss the moment of consequence, summer squash won't abandon you. Larger specimens can be hollowed out and grated for quick breads or stuffed with a ragu of meat or veggies, with cheese and pine nuts sprinkled on top.

Although circumstances dictate that I buy my summer squash at a market, I bring home an armload to use in different recipes throughout the week. Though I'm guaranteed to find zucchini virtually year-round, this stalwart is all the more appealing when steamy weather dictates lighter dishes packed with summer produce and leafy herbs such as basil and mint.

Now is the time when you can supplement that creamy-fleshed zucchini (occasionally referred to as "vegetable marrow") with yellow crooknecks and petite pattypans in shades of pale green and yellow. If you frequent a good farmers market, many more varieties await in an array of patterns and colors. Look for the globe-shaped or "8-ball" zucchini, for example, which is perfect for stuffing.

If you are used to simply steamed rounds of green and yellow squash, perhaps accompanied by carrots or green beans for a trusty vegetable medley, then you are in for a treat. Summer squash love a quick blast from a hot grill or broiler because they'll cook before going soggy due to their high water content.

Sauteing is another easy way to bring out sweetness. Chop the squash fairly small for fast cooking, and don't be afraid to let it get well browned and slightly caramelized. Turn it into a substantial side dish by tossing with beans or steamed grains, a generous handful of herbs and some flavorful cheese like goat or feta. Add some shredded chicken, and you have a main dish salad, no dressing required.

One of my favorite techniques involves no cooking at all. Take fresh, young zucchini or yellow squash, remove the skin and make thin strips with a sharp vegetable peeler. The delicate squash ribbons have a slightly toothsome texture and mild vegetal flavor that lightens a summery bowl of fettuccine with grape tomatoes, garlic and basil. On their own, dressed sparingly with good olive oil and lemon, they make an easy and very pretty salad.

I suppose a backyard full of dizzyingly productive plants could fill me with the squash ennui that takes hold of some of the home gardeners I envy. However, I have a plan to avoid this sad scenario. I will use my days as a condo-dweller to create new and delicious ways to enjoy all the squash that I will eventually grow right between the orchard and the chicken coop. It's going to be a big backyard.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie O'Hara
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