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Ode To the Squash

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Growing up, I ate a lot of stewed squash. Textureless, tasting mostly of butter and salt, stewed squash barely belies its origins as a smooth, crisp summer vegetable. And it was only until I grew older that I understood why my grandparents prepared squash in this way, and in casseroles weighed down with cheese and breadcrumbs, and fried to death. They waited until the squashes were too big. Maybe it was just an attempt at frugality, but if you’ve ever had squash vines you know how productive they are. I’ve known people to chop down their squash vines not because they were dying or frost-bitten, but because ENOUGH WITH THE SQUASH ALREADY! So don’t feel bad about picking little squashes. There will be lots more where those came from.

Usually the better part of a foot long, the giant squashes my grandparents harvested were beautiful in an absurd sort of way—bright and smooth-skinned, covered with small bumps, and with a graceful curve near where it grew from the vine, not unlike the neck of a swan or a heron or some other delicate bird. The gardener in me appreciates the sheer abundance of a giant squash, but now that I have a garden of my own, I have to tell you something.

I will never let a squash grow over six inches in length.

This is not to say that stewed squash is bad. As I said, it tastes mostly of butter, and lord knows I love butter. But stewing is just about all you can do with old, tough squash, and I can put butter on just about anything. Perhaps the best squash I have ever eaten is premature—tiny at two to three inches long. I like to cook them whole in a quick oven (400°) or in a hot pan with some butter and olive oil. Usually, cooking whole vegetables with high, direct heat is a no-no. The skin of the vegetable burns while the interior doesn’t quite cook all the way through. But for something this small and delicate, high heat does wondrous things.

If you have a chance, plant a few squash vines yourself. They seem to thrive in poor soil (although if you have rich soil, so much the better) and can be grown in pots or flower beds just as easily as in garden beds. Squash seeds are incredibly cheap, and if you know any avid gardeners, you may be able to get a few seeds for free. Here in Tennessee, we have a long growing season, so I planted my seeds in late May, long after any danger of frost was past. If you live in an area with a shorter growing season, you may need to start your seeds indoors, transplanting them in warmer weather. Squash seeds germinate well, so plant no more than two seeds per hole. The holes should be no deeper than 1/4 to 1/2 –inch deep, and if you plan on planting lots of squash, be aware that they sprawl quite a bit. Give each plant at least 2 feet of space. If you have a place for the vines to climb—a trellis or landscape netting—you may be able to get away with a foot of space per plant.

Possibly the best part of having your own squash vines is being able to cook squash blossoms. They can be lightly battered and pan-fried or stuffed with goat cheese, battered, and baked. It may seem a little extravagant to eat the blossoms, but squash is incredibly prolific, and there will soon be two blossoms for every one you picked. Even better, wait until a tiny squash is on the vine just behind the blossom and pick both at once. This will give you a little more of a mouthful, and the flavor of baby squash is inconceivably delicate.

Now that specialty vegetables are in style, you may be surprised at the varieties of squash that you can lay your hands on. I like the green-tipped varieties and the charming pattypans, shaped like a lacy UFO. I wish I could tell you that there are a million things to do with squash, but their particular mild flavor and wateriness keep them from being a diva vegetable. You can stew them, stuff them (this is an especially nice way to prepare them), steam them, bake them, turn them into a casserole, layer them in a tian (a layered vegetable dish that usually features squash, zucchini, and eggplant), and use them raw in pasta salads. They are very versatile vegetables, but so prolific as to outrun the creativity of many a good chef. It’s a shame that you don’t see summer squash on many restaurant menus because as far as veggies go, it’s a svelte summer queen. Maybe that should be your job. Have a creative way of using squash? Let me know.

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Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Rub with olive oil and salt and wrap in foil:
           4 medium sweet potatoes (no monstrously huge sweet potatoes need apply)
Remove the...