The Raw and the Mushed
At least two of the judges sneered when the Iron Chef-testants recently faced off with summer squash as their secret ingredient (the third judge, Chicago's own Louisa Chu defended the stuff). The detractors claimed no flavor to this overly available summer staple. Me thinks the problem lies not with limited flavor but in a wrong flavor. I've been racking my brain to get a way to describe summer squash flavor. It is not too bitter like say kale or other greens; it lacks the sulfurous limitations of cruciferes, but its taste is often not entirely pleasant, at all. Bland would be better. This bad or what I would call the standard summer squash taste emerges with certain cooking techniques.
The bad rap for summer squash comes, I believe, because the most used technique, or the one so many eaters most know, is the worst. That is the minimally cooked 1979 Nouvelle Cuisine versions found on catered plates across the universe. The summer squash in these incarnations is either lightly steamed or lightly sauteed. Of course a big problem with the yellow squash on the plate of your award's banquet plate is its out-of-season-ness, but the prep never helps. Barely cooked summer squashes in medium sized slabs just taste bad. The bad flavor.
Here are two ways to avoid bad summer squash flavor.
When people ask me about my locavorism, they invariable ask, "do you eat bananas." I say yes. My family and I do buy bananas, especially during the long apple only season of eating local. What we do not buy, however, is slabs of tuna or other sea fish, and I miss raw fish, like a pounded seafood carpaccio. My carpaccio choices are further frustrated by the frozen state of all our meat. I found the next best thing (well not really, but it worked nonetheless): summer squash carpaccio. Salting the squash firms it up and gives a texture, with a good imagination, like carpaccio. A simple prep:
Shave several younger summer squash with a mandolin--you must slice thin.
Salt the squash generously and wait about 45 minutes.
Rinse the salt, dry well.
Array the squash on plates, shave (again) a cheese like Parmesan over
Drizzle a good olive oil.
Do not fear long cooked vegetables. You can almost never go wrong in cooking your veg to death. Unless you are a Southerner or fan of Fergus Henderson you may never have realized that the path to good zucchini flavor comes from cooking time. Long cooking erases the flavors Steingarten detests (even if he does not realize it) and brings out the latent sweetness in the veg.
Slice 1 onion, season, let it sweat for a few minutes in olive oil
Slice you summer squash (or cube if using patty pans) and add, seasoning again
Cook for a few minutes on higher heat, high enough to get the squash going but not high enough to burn the onions.
Add about a cup of water--don't worry if you add too much call it pot likker
A bit of herb, especially basil will be nice here.
Cook to death, about 20 minutes; it won't be a paste but the squash will have broken down a lot.
Before serving adjust the seasoning and add some of the same herb you used earlier in the cooking process.