If you go by the calendar, summer is transitioning into fall, but The Chef’s Garden will still have deliciously farm-fresh summer squash available in the autumn. What’s wonderful about this vegetable—besides its amazing flavor—is how many parts of it can be used in dishes.
The journey towards using more of the plant began for us more than three decades ago, when a chef who was classically trained in French cuisine came to the United States from Europe. Her name? Iris Bailin. And, after Farmer Lee Jones talked to her at a farmer’s market near Cleveland, the farm began cultivating squash blossoms for her—and then for other chefs, as well.
“Now fast forward by 25 or so years,” says Chef Jamie Simpson. “Around 2010, we began exploring ways to use even more parts of summer squash in delicious ways—and now this is the vegetable I use when demonstrating our philosophy of celebrating under-used parts of plants.”
First up, the leaves. “They might be a bit off putting as you brush up against protective micro-fibers,” Jamie says. “But behind them lies a really flavorful plant, delicious in its own right.”
Squash leaves, whether small or large, will require a form of blanching, he explains. “Then, after we cook them, there are a few ways we might use them. For example, we could use them to wrap tamales, with those leaves not necessarily intended to be eaten. Or we could blend them into a squash leaf puree or juice for pasta. As another option, they can be an emulsion for salad dressings, or vegetal sauce.”
These are covered in spikes with a fibrous outside that resembles celery or the string on a string bean. “We discovered that, with a paring knife, we could very quickly and easily pull them down the stem—and what was left was a hollow straw with celery-like texture. The straw could be as wide as a cannoli or as thin as a beverage straw, depending upon the plant. But all are so tender.”
Jamie and his team like to cut them into tubes that are the size of rigatoni, and then treat them as such, served in a bowl with a butter sauce or some other type of topping.
Or you can leave them raw, compressing them, as just one example, in apple juice. “We’ve also made picked summer squash stems. We’ve also filled them with jelly and, once set, you can slice and eat.”
Jamie calls the various uses of squash leaves and stems a “great discovery,” something he’s demonstrated to other chefs.
Besides the baby squash and fuller sizes—and besides the now famous squash blossoms—there are also incredibly flavorful petite summer squash. “These are the tiniest, most magical things you can imagine,” Jamie says, “smaller than a fingernail and very cool.”
He likes to make a squash casserole or a gratin with larger varieties, and then garnish them with elf-sized petite versions of the vegetable. “As far as the flavor profile and texture,” he says, “it reminds me of green almond, tender crisp almond.”
Each time the Culinary Vegetable Institute hosts a Vegetable Showcase with a squash theme, they always include use of leaves and of stems—with photos of these dishes stored on Facebook albums. So, if you don’t already follow us on Facebook, now is a good time:
Culinary Applications Based on Size
With baby squash, Jamie prefers to keep the prep simple, perhaps a quick blanch, sauté, or grilling. “Not much manipulation.”
As the squash get bigger, he relies more on “old fashioned techniques,” such as cooking them until really soft and then mashing them, or using hard cooking techniques, such as grilling, roasting, or heavy smoking.
“As the size goes up,” he says, “they become more spongy. They can then take on more sauce or butter.”
Fall Squash Technique
Picture a bed of hot coals, with fall squash placed on top and then buried with even more hot coals. “This is,” Jamie says, “unbelievably great.”
Stuffed Squash Blossoms
We’ll end where we got started: with squash blossoms. “You can stuff them with ground meat and bake or use a classic cheese filling. In Mexico, they’re seared in a quesadilla form. We’ve also put a soft-boiled egg in a blossom and the fried the combo. You’ll end up with a soft egg and a crisp blossom, a truly wonderful contrast.”