End Of Summer Squash
Don’t panic. It’s only summer we’re coming to the end of. Even here in the far Northeast there’s still at least a month of delicious Romanesco zucchini, pale-skinned Middle Eastern cousa and the buttery old fashioned yellow crookneck that’s now almost exclusively a home garden delight.
At first glance, this may seem like no big deal. Zucchini and straight necked yellow squash are year-round supermarket staples, and most winter versions of these vegetables are – unlike winter tomatoes – edible. But they are also edible as in “ eat your vegetables” rather than edible as in “oh YUM! How do you make this thing?
(Squash Tortilla. See below.)
Long about now you may be thinking you’ve totally had it with zucchini, even absolutely perfect zucchini, and that if you find under the leaves or are given by an evil friend one more dark green baseball bat, you will subsist henceforth on potato chips.
But stay! There are two things to consider:
1) There’s no point in trying to stay ahead by harvesting the babies. Tiny squash with the blossoms still attached don’t taste like much of anything no matter how fresh they are.
The one on the left is about 1 day from perfect; the flower is just opening and has not yet been pollinated. The one on the right – I really have seen them this size in stores – is ridiculous. It would also be ridiculous if it were a crookneck or Cousa. The potential for flavor is there, but flavor itself is not.
2. You will not easily tire of zucchini if it’s Romanesco, aka Costata Romanesco, a uniquely firm and nutty variety. This one does taste good when it’s quite small and, even more astonishing, the not-seedy part will still be worth eating when the thing’s the size of your forearm.
The one in the middle looks suspiciously robust, and as a general rule it’s wise to avoid any summer squash (or eggplant) so mature it has matte rather than shiny skin. But Romanesco, sold by Johnny’s and by Renee’s, among others, is the exception.
Plus it’s deeply ribbed ( usually) so the slices have beautifully scalloped edges. It’s not yet common at farmstands and greenmarkets, but it’s showing up more and more often as growers and customers alike discover its virtues.
This has nothing to do with tacos. It’s named for the famous Spanish dish of potatoes, eggs and olive oil; and although it’s made somewhat similarly the main reason I’m calling it a tortilla is that I was scared if I called it a squash cake you’d expect it to be sweet.
It’s not. It’s essence of toothsome squash, with a soft pale green or gold-flecked center and deeply olive oil browned crust, equally good hot and cold, as an appetizer, side dish or main course. And making it is simplicity itself, assuming you have a processor with a shredding attachment and that you allow enough time (at least an hour) for the squash to sit there and drain.
For a 9 or 10 inch tortilla: 4 main dish, 6 side dish or 8 tapa servings :
3 – 4 lbs. summer squash: zucchini, Middle-East , crookneck or pattypan in any combination. Use the larger amount if squash are large; they shrink more in preparation.
1 medium onion
2 heaping tablespoons of salt (fear not, it comes back out)
3 extra large eggs or 4 smaller ones
about ¼ cup of flour
1. If the squash is large, cut it in quarters and slice out the seedy soft center material. Otherwise just make it small enough to go through the feed tube. Shred about half of it, then shred the onion, then shred the rest. Put all the shredded material in a large bowl.
Old ironstone washbowls are ideal for mixing large quantities. They’re a much better shape than most mixing bowls, which are too narrow and deep.
2. Add the salt and mix thoroughly – your hands are the best tool for this. Put the squash in a colander over the sink or or a bowl, fit a non-reactive bowl or pan on top and weight it with something like a 5 pound sack of flour. Leave it for an hour or so, during which vast quantities of liquid will come out, reducing the squash volume by 1/3 to ½, depending.
3. Rinse the drained squash with cold running water, press out excess liquid with your palm, then repeat the weighted drain routine for 5 or 10 minutes. If you’re cooking this for someone you want to impress with your world-class cooking skills, turn the shreds into a towel and squeeze out even more moisture. Otherwise don’t bother.
4. Beat the eggs just until loosened in a large bowl, then stir in the squash. Add enough flour to turn the mixture into something the texture of cake batter, very soft and loose but with no free liquid. Pause between additions to let the flour swell, the less you use the better but if you don’t use enough the bottom crust won’t be crisp.
5. Put a heavy 9 or 10 inch skillet over medium heat and add a generous layer of olive oil. How generous is up to you but there has to be more than a slick and this would actually be good deep fried, so it’s hard to use too much.
6. When the oil just starts to smoke, turn in the squash and smooth the top. Cook until the edges start to draw in and if you lift an edge with a spatula you can see things are pretty brown at the bottom. This should take about 10 minutes.
7. Turn on the broiler, put the skillet 3 (or so ) inches under it and broil until the cake top is flecked with brown, about 5 minutes more.
8. Loosen the cake with a wide spatula. Put a large plate over the pan and – holding both firmly with protected hands – flip the tortilla out. That’s it. You could garnish it with sprigs of basil or bouquets of cherry tomatoes or whatever. Or not.
Looking Ahead: There aren’t many vegetables worth freezing plain as ingredients for later use; but if you get a good buy on good summer squash or have a bumper crop, preparing it through step 3 and then freezing it sets you up for making the tortilla (or individual squash pancakes) with lightening speed, even in the dead of winter. Double bag the shreds so the onion aroma doesn’t spread itself around and expect to drain out even more liquid after the mixture thaws.