In the garden as in life, you don’t always get what you want, or what you thought you wanted, or thought you planted . . . whatever. We plant our lettuces year-round, Brassicas in late summer for winter crops, tomatoes sometime in May, favas are a nutritious cover crop, artichokes have created a mini-orchard along the back fence, and we always plant a big plot of basil. After that, other plants might be decided upon willy-nilly, something new to try, as was the case with what I thought was a Straightneck squash.
It’s yellow and it’s squash, but not the smooth-skinned variety that I expected. Turns out it’s a yellow Crookneck. Lumpy and gnarly, it looks like it ambled on over from the wrong side of the tracks in hopes that its innocent pale yellow color would distract me from recognizing it as an interloper. Its lumpy robustness was off putting, a hoodlum toad, and I wondered if I’d have to peel it. Turns out the skin is actually tender, user-friendly, and I recognized an opportunity to substitute it for the eggplant in Eggplant Parmigiana.
I thought a culinary rumble might determine which yellow squash, the Straightneck or the Crookneck, I should plant in the garden next summer, using two different, but favorite recipes: a sauté using the Straightnecks, and a cheesy Parmigiana using the Crooknecks. Let the games begin.
Many weekends were spent with my paternal Grandmother as she crept toward the century mark. I would arrive late morning on a Saturday to an armful of her hugs. I knew she had our noon dinner organized in the kitchen, but first we had to sit and visit about her great- and grand-kids, about her garden clubs and the politics therein, as well as a smattering of local and national politics. Purveyor of a huge vegetable garden most of her life, during her nineties she maintained, with some help, a gorgeous flower garden, along with three vegetables: tomatoes, kale and zucchini. From August through October, dinner always included our favorite zucchini dish. Winters it would be the kale.
Sautéed Summer Squash Recipe, with Bacon, Onion & Tomato
Because we both loved it, and she had the produce growing in the backyard, my grandmother would have this summer squash dish ready to go every visit from late summer on into early fall. She’d cook bacon until almost crisp, stir in chopped onion and cook for a couple of minutes, then the sliced zucchini and/or Straightneck squash, for a couple more minutes, and finally fresh tomato for a final minute or two. I might finish it with a grating of Parmesan, she with a few sprinkles of vinegar.
Amounts and ingredients are flexible – add or subtract as you like.
Ingredients & Directions: Cook chopped bacon, 1 or 2 pieces, in a frying pan until nearly crisp/ Add 1 chopped or coarsely sliced onion and cook with bacon for 4 or 5 minutes more, until onions have softened/Add 3 – 4 C sliced squash and sauté with the bacon and onion mixture until slightly softened, 3 or 4 more minutes/ Finally, add fresh tomatoes, season, cook for another minute or two, remove from heat/ Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
On my own the other evening this was my dinner, the summer squash sauté. I devoured the entire panful, and as I licked my lips and stared guiltily at the empty pan, I had to acknowledge that the Straightneck squash had decisively survived the culinary shootout.
The contender. I sliced a larger of the Crookneck squash and thought the flesh resembled that of an eggplant, and maybe it would make a version of Eggplant Parmagiana, minus the eggplant. So it came to be, and deliciously so. The interloper redeemed itself, at least momentarily. But then, what’s not to like that’s smothered in fresh tomato sauce, caramelized onion, melted cheese and crunchy breadcrumbs? Wouldn’t any gnarly vegetable survive such a taste test?
Three-cheese Crookneck Squash Parmigiana Recipe
As in the recipe above, amounts and ingredients are flexible – add or subtract as you like.
Ingredients & Directions:
Slice Crookneck squash into rounds, 4 cups
Coarsely chop 1 small, or 1/2 large onion
3 C Tomato sauce: (This summer’s easy homemade version: sprinkle chopped tomatoes liberally with olive oil and chopped garlic, salt & pepper. Roast on parchment-lined pan at 425º for about 30 minutes. Cool a bit and process in a blender, food processor or with an immersion blender until smooth or to desired consistency. It will be thick and unbelievably delicious – water can be added later to thin sauce as needed. Freeze or use immediately.)
Coarsely grate, or slice, 2 C mozzarella cheese
2 C Ricotta cheese and 1/2 C Parmesan
Fresh basil, oregano or marjoram (or a mix), coarsely chopped, 1/2 C
An additional 1/2 C Parmesan cheese mixed with 1 C toasted breadcrumbs for topping
Olive oil and butter
Sauté the sliced squash in olive oil until golden brown, 3 or 4 minutes, season, remove and place in a separate bowl/ Adding a little more olive oil, sauté onion in the same pan for 4 or 5 minutes until softened, season, remove from heat/ Coarsely grate 1 1/2 – 2 C mozzarella cheese/ Stir together 2 c Ricotta cheese, 3 T milk, 1/2 C Parmesan cheese, and 1/2 C chopped herbs/ Mix 2 C toasted bread crumbs with 1/2 C Parmesan for topping/ Prepare to layer ingredients in an oiled, shallow casserole: tomato sauce, layer of squash, and onions/ spread the ricotta cheese mixture evenly over squash and onions/ layer remaining tomato sauce, then the squash and onions/ Finish with the grated mozzarella, and sprinkle bread crumbs and Parmesan mix on top, dot with bits of butter/ Bake at 400º for 15 minutes, 325º for another 15, or until bubbling and browned. This is also delicious with ground lamb and feta.
The verdict: Crookneck squash were delicious in the casserole, a perfect host for the saucy, gooey ingredients of Parmigiana, but it wouldn’t have been so appealing simply sautéd, the meat of it too dry and mealy. (Were these 8 -10 inchers simply too mature for the sauté, but the perfect host for the ingredients of a Parmigiana?) They (who are they anyway?) recommend eating these summer squash 6″ or smaller.
The Crookneck is a beauty to behold, however, and one might grow it for looks alone. For flavor and slightly better texture the Straightneck is favored by just a hair since I think it would have been good in either dish. Next summer I’ll be careful about planting the correct summer squash, and Japanese eggplant for my Parmigiana. That’s the plan.