- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

Zucchini and its cousins are most abundant during the warm-weather months and because of this are generally known as summer squash.

These soft-shelled squashes are the busy cook’s best friends. Few vegetables cook faster. They are low in calories, yet work well in a great range of dishes. Fresh summer squash is even tasty raw.

It comes in several shades of green and gold and a range of shapes, including curved yellow crookneck, flowerlike pattypan, baby zucchini and other miniatures.

I rarely saw our commonplace dark-green zucchini when I lived in the Middle East. There, the typical squash is pale green, a kind I have been finding more and more in recent years at markets in the United States. Nobody can decide what to call it. Sometimes it’s labeled white squash. In Southern California, it’s a staple at Latino markets and usually is called Mexican squash. In Detroit, I have seen it as cousa squash. Gardening catalogs call it Clarita squash.

Last year I noticed light green, ball-shaped squashes, about 4 inches in diameter, at a supermarket in Israel, where shoppers were purchasing them to stuff. A few weeks ago, they showed up at a Hispanic market in my Los Angeles neighborhood. There’s also a French variety called ronde de Nice.

Recently, I came across a new squash — star-spangled squash. It looks like a ridged zucchini and cuts into pretty star-shaped slices. I followed the advice of Tristan Millar of Frieda’s Produce in Los Angeles and prepared the zucchini simply by sauteing and grilling to take advantage of the attractive appearance.

With its mild taste, squash gets along with just about every food, whether delicate or assertive. Although you can use any type of summer squash in your recipes, there are subtle flavor differences. For example, zucchini can have a slight bitterness that I haven’t found in Mexican squash. Also, Mexican squash maintains its color during cooking better than zucchini.

Squash cooks in several minutes but presents a few challenges. The low calorie count results from a high water content, which means the squash will turn mushy quickly if it’s not cooked carefully. The natural taste of fresh squash is pleasing but not particularly assertive.

Mediterranean cooks have been particularly creative in coming up with flavorful squash specialties. In French and Italian kitchens, squash is paired with pungent Parmesan. A cheesy zucchini gratin is a French favorite, with a thick bechamel sauce to help prevent a watery casserole. People in Provence bake squash with rice for the same purpose, along with Parmesan cheese. Greeks add orzo, the rice-shaped pasta.

Another way to avoid a watery dish is to saute or fry the slices first. This is a popular technique for quick squash sides and is often the first step in braises or stews. Brushing squash with oil and baking or grilling it also helps avoid sogginess.

Providing a hint of acidity may be the most popular way to give zucchini a little pizazz. This can come from lemon juice or vinegar or from zucchini’s seasonal partner, the tomato, which also contributes sweetness. Adding tomato sauce or tomato paste to the pot also helps thicken the liquid in stews.

In North Africa and the Middle East, people love squash with spice. My neighbor Valerie recently prepared a Friday night feast of a dozen dishes, including a Moroccan-style squash. She marinated and cooked the slices in a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, garlic and chilies in a covered pan on the barbecue. For that festive menu, the humble squash turned out to be the star.

Moroccan green and yellow squash salad with cumin

For this easy, tasty recipe, the squash cooks directly in its tangy marinade, which doubles as a dressing. Use any kind of soft-shelled squash. Serve the salad as an appetizer or a refreshing partner for grilled chicken. For a colorful variation, add sweet cherry tomatoes (see note). When you are barbecuing, instead of making this stove-top version, put the squash in a foil grill pan, cover and grill until tender.

pound zucchini or pale green soft-shell squash

pound crookneck squash or yellow zucchini

2 to 3 large garlic cloves, minced

to 1 jalapeno chili, minced, or teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon paprika

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt, freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 to 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice

Cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or Italian parsley, optional

Quarter zucchini lengthwise, then cut into 3/4-inch slices crosswise to make cubes. Cut crookneck squash in the same manner.

Combine both squashes in a bowl and add garlic, jalapeno or crushed red pepper flakes, paprika, 2 tablespoons oil, salt and pepper to taste and teaspoon cumin. Mix well. Marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes or up to 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Pour squash and marinade into a medium skillet and add cup water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 5 minutes or until squash pieces are tender-crisp and most of liquid has evaporated.

Add remaining cumin and stir over low heat for a few seconds. Remove from heat. If desired, add remaining oil, cayenne pepper to taste and cilantro or parsley.

Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature or cool. Makes 3 or 4 servings.

Note: To make squash salad with cherry tomatoes, use a large skillet to cook squash. Halve 1 cup cherry tomatoes and add to skillet during the last 2 minutes the squash is cooking.


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