Friday, June 29, 2007

Summer's First Squash

Last night I was determined to eat from the garden and one of our squash plants obliged with a magnificent specimen.

You hear so many jokes about gardeners being inundated with zucchini that I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I planted my squashes last year. But this has turned out to be one of my favorite plants in the garden.

Similar to the zucchini, ours is an Italian variety called "Striata de Italia," owing to the light green stripes that run the length of the mildly ribbed fruit. It is a striking vegetable and the foliage is also lush and magnificent. The stems and giant leaves grow boldly upright, looking like a giant rhubarb plant.

At some point in the season, the leaves also will take on the same variegated stripes. Or at least they did last year.

We made the mistake last year of going on vacation just as the fruits were beginning to ripen. I must have forgotten to tell our friend Helen, who was watering for us while we were gone, to by all means harvest and eat anything that looked ready, because when we got back the squashes were huge.

I don't mean just big. These things were Chernobyl humongous, as big as your arm. I wasn't even sure they were edible. I lugged them down to the small produce stand I was operating on Saturdays in front of my daughter's charter school thinking they might attract some attention. Just as a curiosity, mind you. But I wound up selling them to some squash lovers who reported that they were not only edible, but delicious. They made several meals, I'm sure.

So this year I'm keeping a very close eye on these squashes, as they seem to grow by leaps and bounds overnight. The one we ate last night doubled in size in just a few days, and this morning I noticed one growing on another plant that is almost equally as large.

Each plant has numerous blossoms, but not all turn into viable squashes. The plant I picked from last night had two squashes that seemed to be doing fine a week ago, but then began to brown and shrink, no doubt because of some sucking insect that was making a meal of them. I left them on the plant as sacrificials.

Sometime in the dead of summer, when everything is sweltering here in the District of Columbia, the squashes will be overcome with powdery mildew. The nation's capitol seems to be a perfect environment for powdery mildew. All of my squashes got it last year. The garden looked like a field of fresh snow. Then the foliage collapses and there's nothing to do but pull it out.

As for eating these squashes, I typically cut them into thin slices (along with beautiful yellow squash that Mike brought to our Urban Gardeners brunch last Sunday). I slide the slices into a heavy skillet with extra-virgin olive oil heated to almost smoking.

Cook the squash hard to brown them, adjusting the temperature so they don't burn. Wait till the end to season with salt and pepper, as they brown better before the salt begins to draw out the moisture.

To finish the squash, season with finely chopped thyme and fresh marjoram if you have any. Distribute onto plates and give them a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

We ate this with a buccatini pasta tossed with a pesto from last year that has kept ever so well in the refrigerator all these months...


Christa said...

Looks great, Ed. Curious to know... Do the Striata de Italia squashes taste any different than regular zucchini?

Ed Bruske said...

Christa, I am totally reliant on my memory for the taste of regular zucchini. To my mind, the Striata are a bit denser, less moist and have a stronger melony flavor, like canteloupe without the sweetness.

But I think it's unfair to compare a vegetable fresh out of the garden with something that may have been grown hundreds of miles away--perhaps before it was fully ripe--and has been in transport and storage for a week or more. If you have some regular zucchini from your garden, bring it over and we'll do a side-by-side taste test. How about a summer squash cook-off?

Tracy said...

I've just discovered the joy of farm-fresh summer squash, and I'm hooked. Yours look gorgeous!

deliberately said...

Great post Ed. I'm sure a lot of people are about to need a strategy for dealing with the bounty of squash in their backyards!

Ed Bruske said...

Tracy, deliberately, don't you think a summer zucchini cook-off is a brilliant idea?