My first attempt at growing summer squash didn’t work out so well. We’d just bought a mod 1950s stucco house in Miami, with a carport, terrazzo tile floors and a postcard backyard, most of which was occupied by a cracked concrete patio slab. The gaps and crevices in that patio supported an alarming number of tenacious tropical weeds that I never, ever learned to control. In fact the whole outdoor landscape in South Florida was a challenge to my New England senses; verdantly evergreen, crawling with super-sized insects and iguanas.
Up to that point, I’d been an apartment dweller. The only plants I’d cultivated were a ficus tree and assorted pots of herbs on a windowsill. But I was inspired by a little book on vegetable gardening I’d picked up at a thrift store, Angelo Pellegrini’s The Food Lover’s Garden, published in 1970. The book seemed romantically old-school to me. Pellegrini was an Italian immigrant of my grandparents’ generation, a college professor “with an instinct for the good life.”
I wanted to start living my own good life, growing my own food in my own yard, imagining that the everlasting summer climate would be paradisiacal for vegetables. But the profuse garden outlined in the good professor’s book, full of all manner of “herbaceous edibles,” was in temperate Washington state, not the subtropics. Long story short, when I finally paid attention to what was growing and thriving in my neighbors’ backyards I realized I’d have much better luck growing bananas and coconuts. (I did.)
I reread some of Pellegrini’s book recently, and he reminded me that the word zucchini means “little pumpkins” in Italian. The colorful varieties of summer squash in the market right now are related botanically to the beautiful hard-skinned pumpkins (zucce) we’ll be enjoying in the fall and winter. It’s easy to forget that cute little summer squash have something in common with pumpkins unless you’ve ever grown zucchini. They start out so innocently small, but within days the fruits can grow to the size of jumbo baseball bats.
But let’s be honest. Summer squash are bland, and the bigger they are, the more watery and seedy they become. I love the texture of zucchini and patty pan squash when they’re baby-sized. Their flesh is still dense and somewhat crisp, and they don’t need much in the way of cooking. I prefer them raw or quickly cooked or fried, and they seem made for other summer ingredients like basil and tomatoes.
In this recipe, the squash are quickly blanched in salty water and mixed with a basil-infused butter sauce. Be sure to keep an eye on your timer after you put them in the boiling water or they will turn to mush.
summer squash with basil butter
- 1 stick butter (4 ounces), room temperature
- 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
- 1 ½ pounds small summer squash, preferably no more than 1-inch diameter
- Kosher or sea salt
- ¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- Pulse the butter and basil in a mini food processor about 30 seconds, until basil is finely chopped and the mixture is creamy. Alternatively, chop the basil by hand and fold into the butter in a bowl. You’ll need just half the basil butter for this recipe. Cover and refrigerate up to a week. (It’s delicious on sweet corn, pasta, toasted bread…)
- Slice the squash into equal bite-size pieces. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil with 2 tablespoons salt in a saucepan. Add the squash to the pan and set a timer for 3 minutes. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the cooking water, then immediately drain the squash.
- Put ¼ cup of the basil butter in a serving bowl with 2 tablespoons of the cheese and ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the reserved cooking water to make a creamy sauce. If your butter is cold you might need a little more water.
- Toss the squash with the butter. Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese and serve.