The word squash comes from the Native American askutasquash, or "a green thing eaten raw." What makes a squash a summer squash—as compared to a winter squash—is that it's fast maturing, with a thin, edible rind that delights in the summer season. Unlike winter squash, summer squash doesn't store for long periods.
For Native Americans, squash was considered one of the "three sisters," with corn (maize) and beans. Its delicate, tender skin and sweet flavor makes it a summertime favorite.
The largest producers of summer squash are the United States, Mexico, China, India, Russia and the Pacific Islands. In the U.S., Florida, California, Georgia and New York lead the pack.
Summer squash are a good source of vitamins C and B6, potassium, phosphorus and beta carotene. They're also a good source of fiber, and—with a water content of over 95 percent—they're very low in calories, too. (One medium summer squash contains only about 32 calories.) The skin and seeds contains the highest concentration of nutrients (and flavor), making this vegetable top in nutritional efficiency.
There are many varieties of squash—some slender, some roly poly, some straight, some curved. Here are a handful of those you might meet in the produce aisle:
- Zucchini range from dark green to medium green/grey and yellow. Most are long and thin, and the skins are smooth. These are the most popular of the summer squash, shared abundantly by gardeners everywhere. There are round zucchini squash, too.
- Straightneck and crookneck refer to the shape of the squash. Crookneck are similar to straightneck squash but with a curved neck and bumpy skin.
- Pattypan or scallop are pretty green or yellow squash with scalloped edges.
- Zephyr squash is a hybrid that's half green and half yellow, very tender, mild and thin skinned.
- Chayote is a lime green, pear-shaped squash with vertical indentations.
Enjoy summer squash raw or cooked. Slice it onto salads and grate it into baked goods and soups. Or indulge with julienned slices and your favorite dip. Saute, grill or steam it as a side. And add it to all kinds of dishes—from stir fries and casseroles (add to a potato gratin, for example) to quiches and cakes (use it in place of carrots in any carrot cake recipe).
A quick tip: Because summer squash is watery, take care not to overcook it. You may also want to salt it after rather than during cooking, to prevent the salt from drawing the liquid out.
Yellow and green summer squash make a pretty combo, as in this Summer Vegetable Quiche. Summer squash partners well with other veggies, too. Roasting brings out the sweetness of peppers, zucchini and sweet potato in Mediterranean Roasted Vegetables, which can be used to top pasta or pizza, stuff a sandwich or toss with dressing for a salad. Try Roasted Ratatouille, with zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and onions—all flavored with a spicy olive oil and red wine marinade. Another recipe that celebrates the combo of summer squash, eggplant and bells is Grilled Summer Vegetables with Fresh Mozzarella. Or try zucchini and/or yellow squash in Southwestern dishes, like Calabacitas, complete with fresh tomatoes, corn, green chiles and queso fresco.
Speaking of cheese, goat, Gruyere, mozzarella and Parmesan all enhance summer squash. For spices, look to garlic, chiles, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme.
The peak season for summer squash is, of course, summer. You can often find it in the produce aisle year round, though.
Look for specimens that are heavy for their size, with unblemished rinds. They should be firm but not too hard. Avoid extra-large summer squash, which have a dull appearance and a hard surface; smaller squash will be tenderer. Squash grown in dry conditions may taste bitter.
Handle summer squash carefully, as any punctures in the skin can cause decay. Store them unwashed in an airtight container in the refrigerator, where they'll keep for about a week. To use, scrub under running water and cut off the stem end.
To freeze, wash and cut young squash into slices, or grate. Blanche in boiling water for two minutes, drain and cool in ice water. Drain and freeze in a freezer bag, leaving a half-inch of space for expansion.