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Squash, summer

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Squashes are gourds, fleshy vegetables protected by a rind, that belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes melons and cucumbers. Although some grow on vines and others on bushes, all are commonly divided into one of two main groups, summer squashes and winter squashes. Once considered seasonal vegetables, today both types can be found in markets throughout much of the year. A more accurate distinction between the two is that summer squashes, with their soft shells and tender, light-colored flesh, are picked while immature; winter squashes, with their hard shells and darker, tougher flesh and seeds, are not harvested until maturity.

Squash is a notably American food. It sustained Native Americans for some 5,000 years and then helped nourish the early European settlers. New England colonists adapted the word squash from several Native American names for the vegetable, all of which meant "something eaten raw" (presumably referring to summer squashes, though both Native Americans and colonists also ate squash cooked.) Two former presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were enthusiastic squash growers. In the 19th century, merchant seamen returned from other parts of the Americas with many new varieties; squashes continue to be available in a great assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors, such as white, yellow, orange, green-brown, gray, and even light blue.

Summer squashes--which are designated botanically as Cucurbita pepo-- are more than 95% water, and so offer only a moderate amount of nutrients. The high water content, however, means that they are very low in calories (about 19 per cup of raw sliced squash). In addition, they are inexpensive and can be eaten raw or cooked. Their mild, refreshing flavor and satisfying texture make them suitable for inclusion in many different dishes.

Varieties

The most popular summer squash in the United States is the familiar and prolific green zucchini--entire cookbooks have been devoted to it. But it is only one among several common types of summer squash, which vary mainly in shape and color. All are similar enough in flavor and texture to be interchangeable in recipes.

Chayote: Although best known in the South and Southwest, chayote (chy-o-tay, to rhyme with coyote) is becoming increasingly popular elsewhere in the country. This pale green, dark green, or (less common) white pear-shaped summer squash is also called mirliton, vegetable pear, and christophene. Unlike other summer squashes, it has a large, central seed and a fairly thick, deeply ridged skin. It also requires a longer cooking time.

Patty pan: Also called cymling or scallop, this greenish white, disk-shaped squash is convex at both its top and bottom, with a scalloped edge. Its flesh is white and quite succulent. Yellow patty pan squash (such as Sunburst) is similar but more cup-shaped; scallopini is the name of a smaller green-scalloped version.

Yellow crookneck: This squash tapers from a bulbous blossom end to a curved, narrow stem end. Its pale yellow skin has a slightly pebbled texture and its flesh is yellow.

Yellow straightneck: Almost a twin of crookneck, this squash forms a tapering cylinder without a curved neck. Its skin may be pebbled like crookneck's, or smooth, while the flesh is paler.

Zucchini: The shape of a zucchini resembles a lightly ridged cucumber; its skin is medium to deep green, with paler flecks or stripes. For more information, see Zucchini.

Availability

Summer squash is most plentiful from May to August, but it is generally available year-round. Chayote's peak season runs from October through April.

Shopping

Summer squashes can grow quite large (home gardeners often discover baseball bat-sized zucchini hidden under the plant's large leaves), but when allowed to do so, they have coarse, stringy flesh and large seeds. They taste best when small- to medium-sized--not more than 7" long (patty pan squash should be no more than 4" across). Choose squashes that are also firm and fairly heavy for their size; otherwise, they may be dry and cottony within. Farmers' markets and greengrocers sometimes offer baby summer squashes, just 1" to 2" long; these are particularly tender and sweet.

The skin of summer squashes is thin and fragile--delicate enough to puncture with a fingernail. Unfortunately, some shoppers do just this--they prick the skin to test for tenderness, leaving the squash susceptible to decay. Look for squashes with sound, glossy exteriors; avoid those with skins showing nicks, pits, bruises, or soft spots. The squashes should be plump (not shriveled), the stem ends fresh and green. Color should be uniform and bright.

Storage

Place summer squash in plastic bags and store in the refrigerator crisper. It should keep for up to a week. Thicker-skinned chayote will stay for two weeks or longer.

Preparation

Wash squash well and trim the ends. Summer squash need not be peeled or seeded unless it is oversized and has a thick skin or large seeds. Chayote is the exception; unless it is very small, the skin is quite tough. Peel it with a vegetable peeler, using a sharp paring knife to remove the skin from the deep ridges. If cooking chayote whole, you can slip off the skin after cooking. When peeled, chayote exudes a sticky liquid that may burn or even numb the skin, so peel the vegetable under cold running water. Halve the chayote and remove the seed; it can be cooked with the squash, as it has a pleasant almondlike flavor.

Squash can be prepared in various ways when used as a side dish or added to other recipes. For example, zucchini or yellow straightneck can be easily cut into julienne strips, or, if first halved lengthwise, cut into near half-round slices. You can also make squash "boats" to hold a filling--slice cylindrical squash and chayote in half lengthwise, then scoop out the seeds and some of the pulp, leaving a shell. To stuff patty pan squash, cut a small "lid" from the top, then scoop out some of the flesh. A melon baller works well for this purpose.

Because squash is mostly water, it will exude a lot of liquid during cooking. If you want to prevent a cooked dish containing the vegetable from becoming "waterlogged," salt the squash before heating it. To salt squash, cut it into thin slices or dice (depending on the recipe) and sprinkle the cut surfaces with salt; 1/2 teaspoon is sufficient for a pound of squash. Place the salted squash in a colander and let stand for about half an hour. You can then rinse the squash and pat dry with paper towels.

Baking: Place squashes, whole, sliced, or halved lengthwise (for cylindrical squashes) or crosswise (for patty pan squash), in a baking pan. Add a few spoonfuls of liquid (broth, vegetable or tomato juice, or water) and cover. Flavor the squash with chopped onion and garlic and herbs, or layer it with onion slices. Or, top halved or sliced squash with breadcrumbs (or a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated hard cheese) and bake uncovered; broil after baking to crisp the topping. Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes in a 350°F oven.

Boiling: Use this method for larger squash: Drop whole squash into boiling water and cook until tender. To shorten their cooking time, you can also boil hollowed-out squash halves prior to baking them. Cooking times: for whole squash, 10 to 15 minutes; for halves, five minutes.

Microwaving: Cut squash into 1/4" slices, then arrange in a microwaveable baking dish. Add 3 tablespoons of water, cover, and cook until tender. Stir the squash when halfway through. Cooking time: four to seven minutes.

Sauteing: Slices or chunks of squash (or grated squash) can be sauteed in stock or a mixture of stock and a little oil. Blanch or salt the squash first, if desired. Use a nonstick skillet, if possible, and toss frequently to keep the squash from browning. Cooking times: for summer squash, three to six minutes; for chayote, six to eight minutes.

Steaming: Summer squash can be steamed whole, sliced, or diced, in a vegetable steamer. Cut chayote into thin slices to speed cooking. Cooking times: for whole summer squash, 10 to 12 minutes; for halves or slices, three to five minutes; for chayote halves, 35 to 40 minutes; and for slices, 18 to 22 minutes.

Stir-frying: The delicate flavor and texture of summer squash are best preserved by stir-frying alone or with other mild-flavored vegetables, such as green beans, mushrooms, or corn. Be sure to keep stirring and tossing the slices in the skillet or wok so that they cook quickly--before they can release all their juices and turn the dish watery. Cooking time: four to five minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Summer Squash/1 cup slices cooked

36
Total fat (g)
0.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.2
Dietary fiber (g)
2.5
2
Carbohydrate (g)
8
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
2


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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