Miriam's Garden: It's squash season

Here in the Greene hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, we're trying not to think about the awful heat. One cat sleeps on the couch in the darkened living room; another naps in my blissfully air-conditioned office. The dog with her only-good-for-winter coat sleeps near my feet, finally comfortable in the coolest room in the house.

Squash weather. Hot and humid. Makes the branches of the plants grow huge, around 4 feet tall, with outstretched, spiky arms.

Every day now, for about a week, I've been picking about a half dozen small zucchini and yellow summer squash. Trying to get them while still small, before a huge submarine-sized one hiding under a leaf throws off the production.

Miriam makes local appearances

Our columnist and author of the book, "Tomatoes," Miriam Rubin. is to appear on KDKA-TV's Pittsburgh Today Live between 9 and 10 a.m. today. She and her Green Tomato Crumb Cake also make two appearances this Saturday, July 27, at Market Districts -- at 11 a.m. in Robinson and 3 p.m. in Bethel Park (register at marketdistrict.com).

I wish each year that we could remember how large these plants get. How much room is required in between them. How they tend to grow into each other, and into the cucumbers, which we always plant in the same bed. We honestly thought we gave them plenty of space.

This year we've planted two pin-striped squashes from Johnny's Selected Seeds -- natty 'Yellow Sunbeam' and green and white-accented 'Safari.' There's also a deep green zucchini which I think is 'Tigress' or 'Dunja' and the heirloom 'Costata Romanesco.' That's the first one to fall victim to the squash bug and cucumber beetles.

It's tough to pick squash (actually, I cut it with scissors) from the crowded plants without stepping on the leaves. Or falling into the plant, which I almost did a couple times. Scratchy. Would my husband, David, find me in there? How much would he laugh before hauling me out?

A few days ago, when the ground mostly dried up from the rains, we pulled the red, yellow-skinned and white sweet onions. Arranged them in the perforated plastic trays you get from the plant nursery. David carried them upstairs to the barn to dry. It's an attractive but small onion harvest.

We harvested the garlic a day later. David pulled each large head from the soft ground. So soft he didn't need to dig and pry them out. Unusual for summer.

With gloved hands we tapped and rubbed each head gently to dislodge the dirt and mud caked in the roots. Any that weren't completely sound, or had breaks in the necks, I separated out. I'll use those first. The others David took to the barn and arranged on an old screen door so the air could circulate underneath. It was a bountiful garlic harvest. It's amazing that a single clove of garlic, planted a couple inches in the dirt in the fall, can develop into a whole, fragrant head.

Garlic and onions complement summer squash and zucchini. As do basil and cheese. And tomatoes. That's my favorite combination, but as always, the tomatoes are on their own schedule. Soon, I think. I hope. A couple three weeks perhaps.

After the garlic was pulled, David dug up the still-soft dirt at the bottom of the garden with a shovel. He'll till it later, but he enjoyed working the ground by hand. He was careful to dig around the Christmas basil that reseeds like crazy. It has an aroma somewhat like cloves or nutmeg, which must be how it got its name.

In that bed, where the garlic multiplied since last November, we'll put in the second planting of squash. In September it will be crisp and fresh and new once again. And flowers. We'll plant some flowers down there, too.

I walked in the garden at dusk, after a noisy but non-productive (for us) storm passed through. I knelt down and looked at the cucumber vines winding their tendrils on a bamboo frame in front of and on top of the squash. Boris the cat, who doesn't come in the house, rubbed and purred. A firefly glowed to my left. The sky turned gilded-apricot and then violet-flame.

Reminding me, once again, to enjoy this magical season.

Summer Squash Gratin

PG tested

A recipe from my alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America's new cookbook, "Mediterranean Cooking." I had to bake this longer because I cut my squash by hand, as most readers would, instead of using a mandoline. The recipe also calls for seeding the squash, but if you use young, tender, newly picked squash, this is not necessary. Maybe if I'd seeded the squash the dish would have cooked more quickly.

In any case, it's a delightful vegetable preparation and a novel way to use squash. Make it the day before, if you like, and reheat to serve. Looks to me like a great potluck offering.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

  • 4 ounces shallots, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups; I used sweet garden onion because that's what I had)

  • 1 cup panko crumbs

  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped chives

  • 1 1/4 pounds yellow summer squash (about 3 medium), cut in half lengthwise, seeded (I didn't), and sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick half-moon slices (about 5 cups)

  • 3/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese, or more if needed

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  • 1 cup heavy cream, warmed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-by-8-inch metal baking pan or glass baking dish with butter.

In medium saute pan, melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove shallots from pan with tongs and reserve, leaving a light film of butter in skillet. Add panko crumbs to pan with parsley and chives and mix. Scoop out 1/4 cup crumbs and keep separate.

In prepared pan, alternate layers of shallots, squash, remaining 3/4 cup panko crumbs, cheese, and salt and pepper to taste, to make 4 even layers. Pour cream over gratin to coat layers. Cover with foil and bake until tender, 45 to 50 minutes.

Remove foil. Top with reserved crumbs. If using metal pan, broil the top until crumbs are browned, about 2 minutes. For glass pan, which is what I used, bake 10 minutes longer until top is lightly browned.

Allow gratin to set, about 15 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 side-dish servings.

-- Adapted from "Mediterranean Cooking" by The Culinary Institute of America and Lynne Gigliotti (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, $34.99)

Squash, Baby

PG tested

For the baby squash in your garden. Use 'em young. Or use them older, you'll need 1 1/2 pounds total; slice the larger ones into rounds.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 pound baby yellow squash, halved lengthwise

  • 1/2 pound baby zucchini, halved lengthwise

  • 1 cup chopped leeks (I used a sweet garden onion with some of the greens)

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil or parsley

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add yellow squash, zucchini and leeks (or onion). Saute for 5 minutes or until tender (I added a little water as the pan got dry). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with cheese and basil and serve warm.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "In A Snap! Tasty Southern Recipes You Can Make in 5, 10, 15, or 30 Minutes" by Tammy Algood. (Thomas Nelson, 2013, $24.99)

Zucchini and Potato Minestra with Mushrooms

PG tested

We enjoyed this soup on a relatively cool day the other weekend. It was breezy and lovely and the last time we needed more than a thin sheet on the bed. It's delicious and filling so you don't need anything else for the meal, maybe a salad. Keep this recipe in mind for late summer or fall.

  • 1/2 cup olive oil

  • 2 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped

  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

  • 2 cups sliced white button mushrooms

  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I used Yukon Gold potatoes, weighing 1 1/4 pounds in total)

  • 4 cups (32-ounce container) reduced-sodium chicken broth

  • 2 thyme sprigs (I used 4 small ones from the garden)

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

  • 2 medium zucchini (I used 3 larger zucchini, 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)

In Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring often, until aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, increase heat and cook, stirring often, until they release juices and start to get golden.

Add potatoes and then broth. Add thyme; season with salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are half-cooked, about 10 minutes; they should be slightly softened but still firm when tested with fork. Add zucchini, raise heat a bit and cook until potatoes are tender enough to mash easily and broth has reduced, about 10 more minutes.

Remove thyme sprigs; some leaves will fall off. Serve soup immediately, if desired, but it tastes better if you make it a few hours before serving and allow flavors time to mingle and intensify.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "Mediterranean Cooking" by The Culinary Institute of America and Lynne Gigliotti (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, $34.99)

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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