One of the things I look forward to the most at the Farmers' market in the summer is Thane Palmberg's summer squash. It's beautiful. He grows and sells green and gold zucchini and a wide variety of patty pan-type squash. But the fact that he grows a wide variety is not what makes his squash extraordinary. Rather, it is the size. All of his squash are harvested while they are very small—zucchini about the size of my little finger up to squashes weighing maybe 3 or 4 ounces at the most. The patty pan squash that he sells is similarly small. Because summer squash is notorious for growing fast enough to produce baseball bat-sized specimens seemingly overnight, I know this means that his squash vines are tended with care and regularity. The care that goes into growing these beauties is also evident by the fact that they arrive at the market in pristine and unblemished condition (summer squash bruises easily).
In addition to being beautiful, these squash are delicious. Since they are harvested small, their seed cavities are barely beginning to develop and their flesh is still fine-grained and firm. I am always looking for ways to use this exceptional squash—it can be roasted, steamed, blanched, baked in a gratin, added to summer stews (ratatouille!) or sautéed. The 3 or 4 oz. ones can be stuffed. I ran across a recipe for the classic Petit Farcis à la Provençale recently at Tartelette—definitely on my list to try out this summer.
I think summer squash is particularly good sautéed. The light caramelization produced by properly sautéing accentuates the squash's natural nutty character. It is difficult to obtain this golden color with larger squash because the flesh tends to be soft and watery. As it cooks it gives off excessive amounts of water which inhibits browning. Since the flesh is softer and more porous to begin with, it cooks quickly. Unless you are fairly skilled with a sauté pan you end up with overcooked, pale squash. Zucchini that has been cooked to sogginess in this way is one of the reasons more people don't like zucchini.
I am teaching a class next week about using the products that appear at the farmers' markets in the Midwest in early summer. One of the recipes that I will be teaching is a delicious pasta from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors. It is basically a dish of seasoned, sautéed squash that is tossed with penne pasta. I almost never teach a recipe that I haven't changed in some way, but this one will be taught as published—it is very good. Without the pasta and cheese, it would make an excellent summer side dish.
When I arrived at the market last Saturday, the first baby zucchinis of the year had arrived. This pasta dish was a perfect showcase for them. Be sure to add the herbs and garlic to this dish—they really compliment the squash. I'm normally not a huge fan of marjoram—it can be almost perfume-y—but its aromatic quality is perfect with the squash. Basil is a good second choice. If you don't have any basil, thyme is also excellent with summer squash.
One last note: the way the ricotta is added to this pasta is a genius touch. If you have ever stirred ricotta cheese into a pasta, you know that it can create a thick, stodgy mass in short order. By simply spreading dollops of the room temperature ricotta over the finished pasta and serving family-style out of the sauté pan, the ricotta is blended into the dish just enough as people scoop out their individual servings.
Penne with Green & Gold Zucchini and Ricotta
1 c. whole milk ricotta (about 8 oz.)
2 lbs. small zucchini, mixed green & yellow
2 to 3 T. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 T. mince marjoram or basil
Salt & Pepper
1 lb. penne pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino
Remove the ricotta from the refrigerator and spoon it onto a plate so that it will warm to room temperature.
Slice the zucchini on the diagonal a scant 1/2-inch thick, then slice into strips so that each piece resembles the quill shape of the pasta. (Since the squash that I purchased were very small, I simply halved them lengthwise.)
Set a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Add the zucchini and sauté until golden—about 5 minutes. The squash should be pleasantly al dente—definitely not mushy. If necessary, increase the heat to high to keep the squash from steaming.
When the squash is done, add the garlic and herbs and toss to combine. Remove from the heat. Season well with salt and pepper.
Drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with about 2 Tablespoons of salt. Stir to make sure the penne isn't sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Add the penne to the pan of cooked squash. Toss, taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary. If the pasta seems dry, add a little of the pasta water. If desired, finish with a little bit more olive oil.
Dollop spoonfuls of the ricotta over the surface of the squash and pasta. Scatter the Parmesan over the top and serve from the pan. (Do not stir the ricotta in.) Serves 6.
(Recipe from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison)