One of my first kitchen memories is when I was a tot playing at my mother's feet as she cooked. She must have just swept the floor because I was able to gather a goodly collection of little stick pieces of broom. These I put into the metal lid of a jar which I had filled with water and which I then set over the grate in the floor that the heat came out of. I sat beside this heating grate tending my pot importantly, filled with the magic of cooking. I was making "bzzghetti."
I don't remember the inevitable denouement, the realization that no matter how long I sat over my pot it was never going to be edible, that it was never going to be anything in fact but a lidful of wet sticks that had not even gotten very hot.
But I do remember the sick defeat of a more ambitious kitchen project I undertook a little later, when I was old enough to read a recipe but not smart enough to follow it (I never did get that part down). It was some sort of a cake I was trying to make from scratch without having all the necessary ingredients, or s**t for sense. After having somehow managed to get the cake layers out of the oven intact, I was stymied by not having enough confectioners' sugar for the icing. I don't know where I got the idea of using flour instead. The moment of truth came when, unable to get the icing to the right consistency to spread it, I was pouring it over the cake instead. It suddenly struck me that what I was doing was dowsing the baked cake batter with raw cake batter. Then it dawned on me that nobody was going to eat this crap, even at gunpoint. And that's when I was subsumed in self-pity as I realized that other children were leading rich, fulfilling lives playing outside while I had been wasting mine in this kitchen for countless eons! Since the dawn of time!
These two feelings are, to me, the yin and yang of the kitchen, the mystically coexisting sides of the cooking coin: This is magic and Oh Jesus help me. And this is the time of year, as the garden "comes in," when I routinely wallow in both of those feelings, and "go out" of my mind. I begin the morning all earth-mama and tender, thinking how beautifully the yellow squash that surrounds me melds with the paler gold of butter I will cook it in, as if destined by some greater power for this blessed union. I finish the afternoon skidding greasily around the kitchen floor, oiled up like a wrestler in butter with squash seeds sticking to me, cussing and crying and swearing to God that if I ever see another squash I will track down and kill its family.
I know it's mostly a matter of doing too much that gets me to the call-the-cops stage. Once I shared with a friend a truism I'd learned from grim experience: Never make more than one homemade soup at the same time. My friend asked why anybody would wish to do so. And I suppose she was right. I do get a mite overenthusiastic at times, and bite off more than I can chew.
But given the bounty of this year's garden, I don't see how I can bite off any less. My squash is "coming in" to the point the neighbors are "chasing me off." They seemed grateful for my goody bags at first, but lately--well, less so. One has recently spoken of installing a security camera, in fact, and another once pointedly reached into her handbag to show me she carried a gun.
I can take a hint, and am resigned to dealing with the squash myself. Meanwhile, though, it's also a banner year for cucumbers. We have a passion at our house for Wickles,the brand name for those sweet bread-and-butter pickles spiked with hot peppers to pack a punch. I worked out a pretty good homemade version the last good cucumber year, 2016. You can find a recipe in the archives here by clicking on the Chef Guevara icon on the home page and going to the article entitled Pickles, Wickles and Church Picnickles. It was one of the earliest Chef Guevaras I wrote.
So I made I Killed A Man in Texas (my own brand of pickles) for the first month, until we were running out of Mason jars and I anyway worried we had amassed more hot/sweet pickles than any two people our age could reasonably hope to consume during the years we have left on earth. Then I switched to dill pickles. I made dill chips, dill spears and finally, by Wednesday, the day I decided to write this piece, I went out on a limb and made two quarts of big whole dill pickles, the kind you see in a gallon jar on the counter in a redneck bar (possibly one called "Bubba's").
I am less at ease making dill pickles than the sweet kind, or I should say less confident that the finished product is going to be anything anybody will eat uncoerced. Furthermore, the instructions say you must wait six to eight weeks before opening them, and it was while I was imagining my two-month-older self opening the Bubba jars that I lost my willing suspension of disbelief and landed abruptly in the get-me-outta-here stage. And I still had something like 15 pounds of squash left to cook and freeze!
The odd part of all this is that, sick as I get of dealing with all this squash and all these cucumbers, I never get tired of actually eating them. I just finished a perfect lunch of oven-fried squash and cucumber salad. We had fried squash and cucumber salad for last night's supper and I made a squash sandwich and sliced up a cucumber for yesterday's lunch. Still, I know that in two months' time I'll be missing nothing so tragically as squash and cucumbers--whether those Bubba pickles are edible or not.
Anyway I thought, having devoted a 2016 column to cucumbers, it was only I'd do this farewell Chef Guevara on squash, in case you, too, are wrestling 20 tons of the yellow stuff a day. Here are some things I have worked out through the years to do with it:
This is the simplest, purest and easiest way to deal with squash, and when it first begins coming out of the garden in May you'll swoon at how good it is. You forget from one year to the next. Just slice it in rounds, put it in a pan with a little butter or olive oil and cook it over medium heat until tender. You can add onions if you like, and fresh herbs from the garden, added near the end of cooking, also make a nice touch--but the squash is great as it is.
Oven-fry, or fry-fry, it,
This is the way I like squash the most. First, slice the squash into not-too-thin circles, or half-moons for larger squash. (It's always better to pick your squash small but the stuff hides out beneath the foliage and gets monstrous before you know it. I toss the Mobys into the pasture, save the medium-big ones for casserole, and use the small ones for this method.) Four small or three medium squash, once sliced, will fill up my large broiler pan.
Crack an egg over the squash slices in a bowl and wallow them around so all get coated. Then dredge them in a breading of cornmeal and flour seasoned with salt and pepper. The original recipe I read called for half cornmeal and half flour, so in the summer I buy cornmeal mix instead of the pure cornmeal I usually make my cornbread with, on the principle that it includes flour already and I don't have to add any. But today I was running out of cornmeal mix and had to flesh it out with an addition of flour, and I noticed how much lighter and crispier the breading was.
Anyway! Choose your poison. I've seen recipes that use panko for crying out loud. The important part is how you cook it. I prefer to do it in the oven. You get away with a lot less oil that way. You just lay your breaded slices in a lightly oiled baking pan. I use olive oil and put the pan in the oven while it preheats and while I slice and dredge the squash. Then I spray the top of the squash with olive oil from my "Misto" olive oil sprayer, which I prefer over Pam, and put it in the oven at 400 on the bottom rack. It takes about 40 minutes to get done all the way through, flipping it halfway through so that both sides are brown.
As the summer gets hotter and turning on the oven more of a violation of the Geneva Convention, I also make this in my huge Farberware electric roasting pan--which makes it a little soggy--or I toss caution to the winds and use the Southern fat-ass method: Put it in a pan and fry it. This is the murder-one offense of the fat girl world so I don't do it much and I can't tell you how much oil to use. Whatever amount I put in, the squash absorbs it, then my butt. But it's faster than baking and you don't get as hot.
Through the years I've tried freezing sliced squash, uncooked or blanched, sometimes even breaded, for later use in the above methods. I am generally disappointed. It seems if you use squash shortly after you freeze it, it's still good whether you've blanched it or not. But why would you do that? Usually shortly after you freeze squash, you have a lot more fresh squash to deal with. And if you do wait a couple of months, it's soggy and tasteless. I did put a little in the freezer blanched and breaded this summer, and I'm sure I'll cook it this winter with my usual optimism. But in general the way I find it best to freeze squash is cut up and cooked for casseroles.
To do this, slice enough squash to fill a large frying pan as above, into circles or half moons. Also coarsely chop and add an onion. Season with salt and gently sautee in a little butter or olive oil, plus just enough water to keep from browning or sticking, over medium heat, until tender. You want the finished product to be cooked through but to retain its shape and yellow color. When done, drain and cool in a colander, then put in a gallon freezer bag, press the air out, seal tightly and freeze.
When you want to use the squash, thaw it partially and drain again in a colander before beginning your casserole. I'll get to recipes in a sec.
Freezing for Side-Dish Squash
Another way I put away squash for later use is to slice it up and cook it in butter with salt and a little water, then freeze with the liquid in containers just big enough to hold a two-person serving. Then you can nuke it for a side vegetable some winter night when you need a little something more to round your supper out.
My Signature Squash Sandwich
I think I made this one up, though I'm sure I'm not the only human since the world began to stuff a pita pocket with vegetables and then into my mouth. This is something I usually do for lunch so I'm in a hurry and I cook the vegetables in the microwave. If you prefer, you can do the whole thing on the stove.
Melt a dab of butter in a frying pan and add some chopped onion--a small handful per person. While it's cooking, slice one small squash per person, place in a microwaveable measuring cup, and add a handful of frozen broccoli florets. Nuke two or three minutes, until tender. You can also use leftover assorted vegetables for this--those veg medleys you find in the frozen section or whatever you have on hand. In the winter, of course, we make the sandwich without squash because there isn't any.
When the vegetables are tender, drain them and add them to the onion in the pan. Season with salt, then lightly beat one egg per person and add to pan. Cook and stir until egg is set, then spoon into a whole-wheat pita pocket and serve with hot sauce. At our house this is habanero sauce and to me it makes the sandwich.
Quiche was a faddy food back in the 1980s. Not so much anymore and you can see why: Served in a pastry shell and oozing with milkfat, it's a light meal without being a dietetic one. Still, it's seriously good and an inevitable eventual answer to the summer question, "What the hell am I supposed to do with all this squash?"
I adapted this recipe from a more complicated one I found online, and keep messing around with the amount of egg/milk liquid. What I find is I always have too much, but I can put it in the refrigerator and use it as the egg for a squash sandwich the next day.
1 (9”) deep dish pie crust from grocery store.
1 tbsp. butter
Enough squash to fill medium sautee pan, about four or five
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Enough box-grater-grated white cheddar to loosely fill 2-cup measuring cup
3 large eggs
3/4 cup half and half (once I substituted a mixture of milk and sour cream)
handful fresh parsley or other garden herbs, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
dash ground black pepper and/or hot sauce (at my house habanero
Preheat oven to 400. Prick the store-bought piecrust with a fork and bake it for 15 or so minutes while you cook the squash. Take it out when it begins to brown. Meanwhile, melt the butter in your frying pan and add the squash, onion and garlic. Cook over medium heat until just tender. Pour into piecrust, careful not to overfill because you are going to have to fit in the other ingredients, remember.
Add the grated cheese, mixing it into the squash slices gently with a fork. Beat the eggs with the half-and-half, seasonings and herbs, and pour into the squash mixture, using your fork to let the liquid fill in the empty places. Again, if you've made too much you're not alone and it's good left over. Place the pie on a cookie sheet, place in oven and turn the oven down to 350. Cook for 35-45 minutes or until eggs are set and top is golden.
We liked this so much that I began making two at a time and putting one, uncooked and tightly wrapped in plastic, then aluminum foil, into the freezer. When we're ready to eat it, the prevailing wisdom is to unwrap it, put it unthawed into a 400-degree oven and bake for about an hour.
My Squash Casserole
Here is my version of the ubiquitous Southern squash casserole. I provide it shamefacedly in one sense because it's uncreative and fattening, but defiantly in another sense because it's not as sinful as the one I just read in a magazine! I mean, really--the things people put in their food! Cans of cream-of-something soup and sleeves of Ritz crackers. Good God, mayonnaise! It staggers me they can write these things down. In the magazine I was reading there was a pic of the proud chef but it was taken at an oblique angle to hide how fat she was. I don't reckon I should throw any stones myself, and it's true I hide behind a picture of Che Guevara in a chef's hat; but I ask you: Margarine?
Two tablespoons butter, more or less
Enough sliced squash to fill large sautee pan
One onion, coarsely chopped
(As noted above, these core ingredients can be cooked and frozen ahead)
Enough box-grater-grated white cheddar to loosely fill 2-cup measuring cup
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup cooked brown rice
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of hot sauce, optional (at my house--you gotta ask?--habanero!)
If you are starting from frozen squash, as described above, thaw and drain in a colander. If you are starting from fresh, sautee it in butter with onion and a little water as described above until thoroughly tender, then drain.
Preheat oven to 400. Place whatever casserole pan you are using--I like to use a large cast-iron skillet--in there with the butter. Mix the squash and onions in a bowl with the egg, cheese, sour cream, rice and seasonings. Take the skillet out of the pan and stir in the melted butter. Taste the mixture for seasonings and when satisfied pour into the skillet and bake until cheese is melted and top begins to brown, about.half an hour.
I use the brown rice instead of the traditional cracker crumbs to make the casserole more of a real food. But on occasions when I haven't had any rice made up I have used crushed saltine crackers and the sun didn't fall out of the sky. I maintain, though, that Ritz-style crackers exemplify all that's wrong in America and I'll have nothing to do with them.
This squash casserole is something that I take to potlucks, barbecues, parties and Thanksgiving dinners, and it's always a big hit. This COVID-19-blighted year, every time I've put another gallon freezer bag of sauteed squash and onion up, I've wondered if we'll ever get back to a time where people host potlucks, barbecues, parties and Thanksgiving dinners. It makes me sad thinking we'll have to eat all those squash casseroles alone.
But you know, what the hell else am I supposed to do with all this squash?
One of my kitchen snobberies is that fresh produce should be processed as little as possible, so I resisted making this recipe, which calls for grating squash, draining the water out of it with salt, mixing it with flour--everything but fermenting it in a sheep's stomach for Pete's sake--for years. Then, of course, I tried it and we are now crazy about fritters of every kind. One year I fritterized everything that came out of the garden. The rutabaga fritters were a little weird but the turnip ones were so delicious I keep trying to grow enough to have 'em again. If you want to try them, just peel the turnips before you grate them and leave the cheese out of the squash recipe below.
Eight medium squash (I had a couple of very large ones this time and only used six.)
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup flour (I use self-rising but I don't think it matters)
Enough box-grater-grated white cheddar to loosely fill 2-cup measuring cup (yes, I know that's what I say every time, but that's really how I measure it)
Dash hot sauce (habanero if you've got it)
Olive oil for frying
Grate the squash with the big holes in a box grater, or your food processor if you've got one and don't mind cleaning it later, into a colander. Add the salt and mix. Leave in the sink to drain about half an hour, or anyway while you chop the onion and grate the cheese. Chop the onion small and add it to the squash. (The original recipe called for grating the onion, too, but I found I preferred the fritters to have a little texture.)
Squeeze the squash a little to get additional moisture out. Don't get neurotic about it, but you'll notice that the only liquids in this recipe are the egg and dash of hot sauce--squash is so full of fluid all by itself that I guess the reason you have to salt and drain it like this is so the batter won't be too watery. Put the squash in a mixing bowl and add in the flour, cheese, egg and seasonings.
When ready to cook, drop onto a hot, oiled griddle or frying pan by the heaping big flatware spoon. I use my electric griddle and olive oil by preference but a nonstick skillet is also good. Fry over medium-high until brown on bottom, maybe five minutes, then flip and do the other side, like pancakes.
At our house, we can eat only about a third of the recipe, and since it only uses one egg for all that squash it's not feasible to make less. So what I do is oil a cookie sheet or broiler pan, drop fritter patties onto it, and place it into the freezer. When the patties have frozen hard, transfer them to a freezer bag, press the air out and store in the freezer somewhere you know where they are.
I add the note, and the emphasis, from bitter experience. While I was freezing the remains of the perfectly delicious batch I made the other day, I remembered a lovingly stored freezer bag full of last summer's I'd found during one of my mining expeditions in the freezer. They'd gotten smashed together, partially thawed and then refrozen, so that they were an amorphous mass of sick yellow studded with paler freezer-burn crystals. I took them outside and buried them in a shallow grave.
Thinking of that batch's fate while I labored over this year's installment pushed me over the edge from yin to yang, from blissful farmwifery to beam-me-up-Scotty, so I reckon this is a good place to end. As with garden produce and as with kitchen time, there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing.