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Let’s Cook Up A Nice Big Bowl Of Summer

A bowl of squash with gnocchi and basil
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

The trouble with Tomato Time is that it lasts, like, three hours, and that's not really long enough to stand as consolation for the onrushing end of summer, the bitter flip from the sunlit time when things are growing to the grim and dark time when they are dead. You can cope by being gloomy and bereft about it—I've tried that, in fact I try it every year, whether I want to or not, and am due to launch another unwilling attempt any day now—or you can find other things to be glad about. I am not going to stand here and look you in the eye and peg this blog to the idea that the peak days of basil and summer squash will suffice to redeem the shortening of days, and not only because I'm not standing and not anywhere near where I could look you in the eye and probably, just being realistic here, knowing myself, wouldn't look you in the eye even if you were sitting in my lap. If Tomato Time can't do it all by itself, summer squash and basil have no chance. They're nice, is all I'm saying. Basil and squash. A nice way to feel good about the back end of August.

Here is a tasty way to combine the two into a nice big bowl of summer. Maybe you have "cooler" or "less weird" ways of appreciating these hot late-summer days than via in-season foodstuffs; maybe you are squealing and giggling your way down a bitchin' water slide even as we speak, though I struggle to picture the logistics of reading this blog while doing so. At some point, I presume, you will want some food to eat. I recommend eating this food, after cooking it first.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need some squash. Specifically you will need some yellow straightneck squash, as well as some of the variety of squash—yes, squash!—known as zucchini. These are varieties of what are called "summer squash": Kinds of squash that are harvested early, so before, like, pumpkin season, and while their rinds are still edible and delicious and haven't yet become hard, uh, exoskeletons or whatever. This is to say that no, you cannot swap these out for, like, acorn squash.

As for how much, here is the thing: The cooking part of this is going to be tedious, and involve batches, for reasons this blog will get into down below, and the results are going to be extremely delicious. A natural tension! Maybe you do not want to make a ton of this food, even though you could very easily consume a ton of it. I think you could satisfy four reasonably hungry owners of normal-sized alimentary canals with four total squashes: two yellow and two zucchini. A nice balance of colors and flavors.

They might want more! They will eat more if you make more. But making more will take longer and be more annoying. I'm moving on with this blog now.

You will need some gnocchi. You can just buy some at the store, if you are not interested in the gigantic thousand-step pain in the ass that is homemade gnocchi. The store-bought stuff comes in one-pound packages, which is way more than you'll need if you're using four total squash, as recommended above: This is not a blog about making gnocchi that just happens to have some squash in it; it is a blog about making a big delicious summery bowl of squash given satisfying heft and variety in part by featuring, here and there, some fun lil' gnocchi to include in your bites. I recommend using not more than half of the package of gnocchi, unless you are using more squash than I recommended, a betrayal from which our deep and long relationship shall never recover.

You will need some basil, chopped finely. I think you should go heavy on the basil, here! I think that you should go for a big hearty handful of big basil leaves, and make the finished product look like your squash spent some time under a lawnmower. I think this is a good way to honor the bountiful end of summer, and also that it tastes and smells good. You are welcome to throw some other fresh herbs in there if you like, but basil, to my way of thinking (and gardening), is the king herb of late summer; this stuff should taste and smell like basil. You will also need a big fat clove of garlic (or two shamefully small ones), which you will mince.

You'll need some cooking oil. This can be olive oil (light, for hot cooking); it can be vegetable oil; it can be cooking spray. You're not going to use much of it. You will also need some good extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling over this stuff when it's time to serve it and eat it. You will need your old pals salt and black pepper. You will not need, but could perhaps enjoy, some small amount of squeezed lemon juice, or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, added at the end of all this. It's fine either way, or without.

You'll need a trusty skillet or saucier pan or, what the hell, a flat-bottomed wok that you can get good and hot. This vessel, whichever kind, can be cast iron or stainless steel or, I guess, uh, like, carbon steel or whatever; it probably should not be nonstick-coated, as I'm given to understand that at the kind of high temperatures we'll be aiming for today the nonstick stuff can unleash terrifying space chemistry into your food, which is bad. You'll need a saucepan or pasta pot or stockpot, for cooking the gnocchi, in water, which you'll also need. I'm not listing any more hardware in this section. Let's cook.

Or, OK, wait, let's slice up these dang squash first. Here's how I recommend doing that.

First, lay one of these dang squashes down on your cutting board and slice the ends off. Like so:

A yellow squash with the ends cut off
Figure 1.0: A yellow squash with the ends hacked off, next to an alarming knife.
Figure 1.0: A yellow squash with the ends hacked off, next to an alarming knife I took this photo.

Next, stand that son of a gun up on the girthier of its two flat ends, and make two cuts down through it from the top to the base, at 90-degree angles, so that you have four long quarters of squash. Like so:

A yellow squash with the ends cut off, and sliced into quarters lengthwise
Figure 1.1: A yellow squash with the ends cut off, standing on one of those flat ends, and cut into quarters lengthwise. You are not allowed to own me for their not-uniform size.
Figure 1.1: A yellow squash with the ends cut off, standing on one of those flat ends, and cut into quarters lengthwise.I took this photo.

And then finally, lay this poor mutilated sucker's four long quarters back down on the cutting board, and slice through them crosswise at, say, inch-and-a-half intervals, so that they are nice big more-or-less uniform chunks. Note the word "big," there. You do not want any puny little Monopoly-dice-ass chunks of squash, here! They will turn to mush as they cook. You want hearty chunks. Like so:

A yellow squash with the ends cut off, and then cut into quarters lengthwise, and then sliced crosswise into hunks
Figure 1.2: A yellow squash with the ends cut off, and then stood on its end and sliced into quarters lengthwise, and then laid down and sliced crosswise into attractive pieces for cooking. I said more-or-less uniform, wiseass! I never promised perfection.
Figure 1.2: A yellow squash with the ends cut off, and then stood on its end and sliced into quarters lengthwise, and then laid down and sliced crosswise into attractive pieces for cooking.I took this photo.

The procedure is the same for the zucchini. I would think that's self-evident. Go ahead and cut up all of your squashes; when you're done, we can do some cooking.

Fill that saucepan or pasta pot with some cold water, clap a lid on there, and set the pot of water over high heat on the stove to come to a boil. While that's doing its thing, on a different burner, heat up that skillet over medium-high heat until it is damn hot. Let's take a second to discuss that.

You can make a hunk of squash hot and soft lots of ways. You can sock it in a 250-degree oven for a while. You can steam it. You can probably boil it. There's nothing special about turning a raw hunk of squash into a hot and soft hunk of squash. That's not what we're doing, here! What we're doing here is turning these damn hunks of squash into browned and delicious hunks of squash, and we're doing that by blasting them with furious volcanic heat, the purifying fires of hell, so that the transformation can happen in less time than it takes them to become mushy and sad. OK? You can use whatever term you like for what this technique will be: You can say that we are sautéing the squash, or that we're searing it, or that we're Breaking it upon the Wheel of Heat. I don't give a damn, so long as you turn the stove up and give the pan time to become genuinely frickin' hot on there.

OK. So. Your pan is nice and hot now. You're even a little bit afraid of it. That's good and correct. Add juuuust a little bit of that sturdy cooking oil to the pan, a tablespoon if you're pouring out of a bottle, a brief once-over spritz if you're using spray stuff, and chuck a batch of squash chunks into that fucker. Don't overcrowd the pan, here: Each individual chunk of squash should be able to sit flat on the surface of the pan without more than the very tip of a corner touching any other chunk of squash. Move them around with a trusty cooking implement (heat-resistant tongs are good for this) to situate them thusly, and then leave them alone. The room between them will allow water to evaporate as it cooks its way out of them, which will allow them to turn nice and brown on the bottom. They will be making all kinds of exciting sizzling and searing noises. This is a fun kind of cooking.

A minute or so has gone by. If your pan was genuinely real-deal friggin' hot, then you can use your tongs or a plexible fish-turner spatula to pry up the corner of one of your squash pieces—it will lift straight off the cooking surface with little to no resistance, having been seared—to see that it looks brown and sexy on that side. Hell yes. If this case-study chunk of squash hasn't gotten there yet, maybe bump up the heat, but mostly just wait another minute and check again. If it is charcoal, I may have overstated my case a tad in the previous paragraph.

At some point the squash chunk will look brown and lovely on the down side. Now it is time to toss the contents of the pan. Not into the garbage! What I mean is that it's time to turn the squash chunks so that they're cooking on a new side. You can decide for yourself how you want to do this. You can turn them, one at a time, with your tongs or your nimble spatula or your collectible vintage Boxing Darth Vader puppet or whatever, ensuring that each and every one of them rotates onto a new side; this is somewhat time-consuming and absurd-seeming, but satisfying to the persnickety type. Or! You can grip the handle of the pan (with a cooking mitt or hand towel! It's probably hot!) and give it a nice firm back-and-forth shake, and maybe a slick wrist-flip toss, so that some of them go a-sailing up in the air briefly. This is riskier. Some of the hunks won't turn or will land on the same side they were already cooking on, which isn't such a big deal and is easily remedied; and some of them my go flying out of the pan, which also isn't a big deal in the cosmic sense but sure sucks mondo tailpipe in the "cooking dinner to be eaten" sense. But consider that it is also a lot jauntier and more fun, and you will only live once, and no one's life will be ruined because one or two squash chunks got unevenly cooked or sailed into the unknown, unless by sailing into the unknown a flying squash chunk knocks somebody off their bicycle and they fall into a gorge and die, in which case perhaps I should have specified not doing this near any cliffside biking trails.

Give your squash chunks another minute or two on this new cooking side. Personally, my hope is always that the skin side of as many squash chunks as possible will get some attractive blistering action from this, because it looks nice and tastes nice, so maybe I fuss around a little bit to ensure each one spends some time skin-side-down in the pan. Maybe you don't care about that! It's fine! You don't have to care about it. Remove this first batch to your hugest of salad-type bowls, add another little amount of fat to the hot pan, and get going on the next batch. I do not know how many batches you will do, because I don't know how big your pan is. However many batches you have to do, uh, do them.

Eventually you will have sent all your squash chunks through the Gantlet Of Savage Heat and into the big bowl. Hopefully by now that pot of water is boiling, because it is time to cook the gnocchi. This is very quick, in case you were worried about the squash turning cool in the bowl. Drop the gnocchi into the water and give them a few seconds of stirring; within, oh, three minutes they should be bobbing up to the surface of the water, at which point it's fine to extract them and dump the gnocchi, sans cooking water, into the big bowl with the squash, unless for some reason the package instructions say it should take less or more time than that, in which case follow those instructions instead of mine.

You're so close to done! It's all very straightforward from here. Here comes a wall of boldface! Add the minced garlic (which you left raw! What is life if it never features nightmare dragon breath, I ask you!) and the basil to the bowl, plus any other herbs you decided to use; drizzle some of that good extra-virgin olive oil over the top; sprinkle some salt and freshly cracked black pepper over the whole deal, and toss and toss and toss all this stuff with a pair of implements until the garlic and basil and oil seem evenly distributed throughout. That was it. You finished cooking.

You can treat this stuff like a side or equal partner to some kind of light protein, if you like; last week I, uh, paired it (is that weird phrasing?) with some huge cherrystone clams steamed with white wine and garlic and spritzed with lemon, and dinner was nice all around. But you can also just portion it into bowls and dig in: It's hearty and vivid; the squash's gentle bitterness eased by the sweetness you seared into it, which is brightened in turn by all that basil and the garlic; altogether it's warm and satisfying and tastes and smells richly of summer. Fill up while you can.

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