Some magical things are going on amidst the pots of vegetables on our porch. One of our tomatoes turned red. Suddenly. One day everything was green, and then the next there was a startling splash of red beaming at us from under a leaf! It looked like something out of a fairytale, as striking as a single red rose on a bush.
And the eggplant is suddenly dangling with tiny eggplants, like charms swinging from a bracelet. I keep feeling like the plants should give some sort of proud cluck, like a laying hen, before they sprout a fruit seemingly out of nowhere.
But, instead it happens stealthily, in the night.
I’m in awe of growth in general. And the way fruits and vegetables emerge, the pace they keep up at this time of year, is particularly miraculous. The growing season has really hit its stride now, and I practically can’t close the refrigerator with all the vegetables and stems and greens crammed in there.
And this means it’s also time for the zucchini and summer squash to begin flooding in. And for us to tell the stories, the same ones we tell every year at this time, of how, in the small towns where we grew up, the only time of year people would lock their car doors was during zucchini season, to prevent neighbors from sneakily filling the car with their zucchini overflow.
And about how we would wind up with some summer squash so huge, we’d hollow them out and make them into boats.
Those stories. I’ll tell them again next year, too.
But, I haven’t reached zucchini or squash overflow yet. I’m still thrilled at the sight of each crooked neck and buttercup yellow-striped belly. In fact, for the present moment I’m still deluding myself that this year the summer squash will not best me, even when August arrives. We’ll see.
I might actually have the edge on them, simply with this gorgeous braise. It’s based on a summer squash recipe from Cooking in the Moment by Andrea Reusing.
Which, by the by, is a lovely book. At first I wasn’t thrilled with it. Everything in it seemed like a “been there, done that” recipe. But, then somehow, unexpectedly, I found myself being drawn back to them, noticing how in almost every case, what I had thought was the same tired dish I’d seen dozens of times actually had a subtle but detectable spin that adds a new dimension. It’s winning me over.
As I perused the book with eyes, newly rubbed clean of those eye squidgies of jadedness, the slow cooked squash with butter particularly captured my attention. “I need to make that as a sauce for something,” I found myself muttering. But what?
I considered chicken, or fish, or pasta, and I think all would work quite well. But, in the end, I decided on using it to dress up light puffs of ricotta gnocchi blended with herbs.
And yes, you can make gnocchi, even on a weeknight. And you should! Here’s what you do. You blend a creamy mound of ricotta with golden egg yolks, a little pile of Parmesan, and snipped herbs, then stir in clouds of sifted four and watch as it comes quickly and easily together into a dough. Then, you get to roll out snakes of that dough – which is, in fact, the consistency of very soft new Play-do – cut them into little nuggets, and roll them on the back of the fork.
It always gives me the general feeling of ‘Italian nonna spends an afternoon in Kindergarten,’ which, you have to admit, is about as fun as it gets!
Refrigerate the gnocchi while you make the squash sauce, because once you have a big pot of salted water boiling away, the gnocchi only take a couple minutes before they bob up to the surface, perfectly cooked through.
The squash sauce involves slowly, gently melting some green onions and garlic into a foamy pool of butter, then braising in the squash (with a little extra butter) until it is silky and soft but still has a little structure left to it. Add a big handful of chopped basil and it’s ready to go.
The herbs in the gnocchi and the sauce add lightness to the flavor. And, the combination of the sweet, buttery, almost meaty squash and the tender, cushions of gnocchi is marvelous, kind of addictive.
I think this way of preparing summer squash is versatile enough to be applied to zucchini as well, and to be paired with all manner of meats or grains. It’s possible that the anual bumper crop has met its match.
Herbed Ricota Gnocchi (adapted from a recipe on Food52) (serves 4)
- 1 lb. good whole-milk ricotta
- 1 large egg
- 1 Tbs. olive oil
- 1/4 cup Parmesan
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
- 1/3 cup finely chopped chives
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
- 1 1/2 – 2 cups sifted flour
- In a large bowl, stir together the ricotta, egg, and olive oil until smooth. Then, stir in the salt, nutmeg, Parmesan, and chopped herbs.
- Stir in the flour a little at a time until the dough comes together into a ball (mine only took 1 1/2 cups). Turn this ball out onto a floured surface.
- Using well floured hands, take bits of the dough and roll them into ropes that are about as thick as your thumb. Use flour as necessary to prevent sticking, but do try to use as little flour as possible, otherwise the gnocchi can turn out heavy.
- Cut the ropes up into 1-inch long pieces. Roll each piece along the back of a fork to give it shallow ridges, then place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate the rolled gnocchi until you are ready to cook them (Prepare the sauce before you cook the gnocchi). (You can also freeze gnocchi by putting them in a single layer on a baking sheet into the freezer for a couple of hours until solid, then transferring them to a freezer bag to store. If you freeze them, don’t defrost them before boiling.)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Gently add the gnocchi, stir gently and then allow them to cook until they float to the surface. In the meanwhile, drizzle some olive oil on a platter.
- As the gnocchi float to the surface, use a slotted spoon to lift them out of the water and transfer them to the platter.
- Spoon sauce (see below) all over the finished gnocchi and serve.
Butter Braised Summer Squash Sauce (inspired by Cooking in the Moment) (serves 4)
- 5 cups of summer squash, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 cup sliced green onions, or spring onions
- 1 garlic clove, peeled, and finely minced
- 4 Tbs. unsalted butter
- salt and pepper
- about a dozen basil leaves, chopped
- In a large pot, heat 3 Tbs. of butter until foaming. Turn the heat down to moderately low, stir in the green onions and garlic, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very tender, about 8 minutes. (You don’t want the onions and garlic to brown during this process, just get very soft, so if they start to brown, either turn the heat down or add a Tbs. of water.)
- Add the remaining Tbs. of butter and the summer squash pieces. Sprinkle in about 1 tsp. salt and stir to coat the squash. Cover again and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is very soft and almost falling apart, but not quite, about 10 minutes. (This is a good point to get the water boiling and cook the gnocchi.)
- Add pepper to taste (and more salt if you think it needs it). Stir in the basil, then serve the squash over the gnocchi. Accompany with a green salad, and you have got yourself a summer dinner!