August 20th, 2013
07:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Virginia Willis, is the author of cookbooks "Bon Appétit, Y’all" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y’all." She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and a frequent contributor to Taste of the South. She also wrote Eatocracy's most-commented post of all time.

In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer that if you haven’t relished them before Labor Day, you should consider yourself deprived of the entire season. My plan is to share a little history and a few recipes that I hope you will enjoy.

This week is all about summer squash.

A long, hot summer with just the right amount of rain is bound to create a situation of disastrous consequences: way too much summer squash in the garden. Zucchini and yellow squash are prolific. You and your family can eat it every night. You can leave bags at the front doors of all your neighbors. You can give it away to strangers. But the plants relentlessly continue to produce more and more. At a certain point in midsummer, you will notice your neighbors crossing to the other side of the street when they see you, and the postman conspicuously looking the other way as he deposits your mail, worrying you might try to foist more summer squash upon them.

Squash are loosely grouped into summer or winter varieties, depending on when they are harvested. Both types of squash are summer crops, but summer squash are harvested when they are immature, when the rinds are still tender and edible. Winter squash are allowed to mature into the fall, resulting in fruits with fully developed seeds and tough rind. Summer squash grows on bush-type plants, not vines that spread, and the word “squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American word askutasquash, which means, “eaten raw or uncooked.”

Native to North America, squash have long been an important food crop. Food lore has it that Christopher Columbus transported squash seeds from the Caribbean to Europe. It is documented that summer squash have been grown in Europe since the Renaissance.

In the Americas, squash was one of three primary crops for Native Americans, along with corn and beans: the “Three Sisters.” The corn stalk provided a growing structure for climbing beans; the bean vines root the corn to the ground, helping stabilize the stalks. The beans also enriched the soil with nitrogen that fertilized the corn and squash, especially valuable since corn uses a lot of nitrates out of the soil. Lastly, the squash vines acted as living mulch to shade out weed plants and retain moisture in the soil. When the three crops were eaten together, they provided a nutritional balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.

The most common summer squashes are scallop, or patty pan, constricted neck and zucchini. Patty pan is round and flattened like a plate with scalloped edges. They are often white, but also can be pale yellow and green. Constricted neck squash is thinner at the stem end than the blossom end, and is classified as either “crookneck” or “straight neck.” It is often pale yellow. Zucchini squash is cylindrical and is most often bright green. The skin should be crisp and bright.

Summer squash thrives in our hot Southern summers. They belong to the plant family that includes melons and cucumbers, two other plants that also love our subtropical climate. One common mistake that too many gardeners make with summer squash is letting the fruits become too tough before harvesting them. Summer squash must be harvested while young so the rinds and seeds are tender. The plants must be examined over every day or so in hot weather, so you don’t wind up with the dreaded mammoth zucchini bat. Most varieties of summer squash mature from blossom to harvest-ready veggie in four to six days, so pay attention!

What’s a cook to do with an overabundance of squash when stalking the postman isn’t an option? I love to thinly slice summer squash and use them as a raw vegetable “chip” for dips and salsas. I also enjoy making a summer slaw by dressing the vegetables in a light lemon vinaigrette. My grandmother would bread slices of squash in flour and cornmeal and fry them in her cast-iron skillet.

Summer squash stir-fried with a bit of sweet onion is delicious and quick. There are recipes for grilled squash salads, zucchini bread, zucchini soup, various summer squash tarts and even summer squash pies. However, I would be remiss in this post about iconic summer foods if I didn’t feature the staple of dinner-on-the-grounds across the South, the cherished and beloved squash casserole. I’ve made a few small changes to lighten things up a bit, but I am sure you’re going to enjoy it just the same.

Lightened-Up Squash Casserole

Serves 6 to 8

When preparing summer squash dishes, I like to mix the varieties for an interesting contrast of color. Instead of heavy cream or mayonnaise, I’ve lightened up this old-school Southern favorite and suggest preparing a béchamel sauce with low-fat milk, to which I add a combination of reduced fat and regular cheddar cheese. It’s not a low-fat dish by any means, but it is far less fatty and rich than the traditional version - and still tastes delicious. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

1 tablespoon canola oil, more for the dish
3 yellow squash, sliced 1/4 inch thick (about 1 pound)
4 zucchini squash, sliced 1/4 inch thick (about 1 pound)
1/2 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 cup low-fat milk
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated reduced fat Cheddar cheese
3/4 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs such as parsley, chives and basil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush an ovenproof casserole dish with oil.

Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Place the yellow squash and onion in a steamer basket and set over the boiling water; steam until the squash is just tender. Repeat with the zucchini and steam until just tender. (You can also place all of the squash in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it until tender, about 4 minutes, depending on the strength of your microwave.)

Grate the cheeses and combine. Measure out 1 cup for the sauce and set aside the remaining cheese for the topping. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir until very pale brown. Add the milk and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat. Add the 1 cup of cheese to the sauce. Stir the cheese into the sauce. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Pour over the squash and onions; stir to combine. Add the eggs, half of the breadcrumbs and the herbs.

Transfer to the prepared casserole. Combine the remaining 1/2 cup breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup of cheese. Sprinkle on top of the squash mixture. Bake until firm and brown on top, 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly before serving.

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

Previously:
An ode to okra
Peaches
Butter beans and field peas
For the love of tomatoes
Homemade ice cream
Glorious corn
CSI: CSA – We need to talk about zucchini
Squash is the answer to all your problems



soundoff (9 Responses)
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    Fun fitness fact!

    Squash offers a very good source of vitamins B1 and C, folic acid, pantothenic acid, fiber, and potassium. Winter squash are also a good source of vitamin B6 and niacin.

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  4. Sunflower2

    In the south our squash casserole is made with Mexican style or jalepeno cornbread mix, cheese and sour cream, along with the squash and onions. Only other recipe I've ever seen was with cream of chicken or mushrooms soup. This recipe looks weird to me....

    August 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  5. paizleysun

    Eeewww....summer squash. Yuck. Winter squash is ok, though.

    August 22, 2013 at 6:41 am | Reply
  6. Lori

    This seems to combine two recipes. There are extra ingredients, "1 cup breadcrumbs" is listed twice, and "1/4 cup chopped herbs" is listed but never used. And it will be a big mess if you pour the cheese sauce over the squash and onions in the steamer basket....

    August 21, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
    • Lori

      oooops, my bad, the herbs are used.

      August 21, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  7. Annoyed Speller

    Please correct Ms. Willis' name. It is Virginia not VIRGISANIA.

    August 21, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  8. VladT

    First!!!!!

    In all seriousness though, I love zucchini, and eat a lot of it. And every Thanksgiving, my aunt makes a type of multi-squash cheese type casserole thing, with zucchini, yellow squash, and a few others, and gooey cheese.

    (Homer simpson salivation noise)

    August 20, 2013 at 7:31 am | Reply

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