Squash

June is a busy time in the vegetable garden. There is as much going into the garden as there is coming out of it.

Seeds for beans, field peas, pumpkins, squash, corn, cantaloupes and watermelons can be sewn now, as well as continued planting of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

This week, we are putting summer squash front and center. Planted when the chance of frost has passed in April, these versatile vegetables mature in just 40 to 55 days, so it is time to harvest. Fall planting begins Aug. 1, which will produce a second crop just before the winter frost arrives.

Squash, like most vegetables, require full sun, at least six hours a day. They should be planted in well-drained soil with a thick layer of compost mixed into the soil. Summer squash are roamers, with big, broad leaves, so space plants at least 3 to 6 feet apart.

They can be trained to grow on trellises or along a fence, as the tendrils will latch onto the structure. Tendrils are the threadlike, spirally coils of a climbing plant that twine around the support.

When growing on a trellis, the fruit may need support to keep the weight from pulling them off the vine. Cradle fruit in a sling tied to the structure. These can be made of cheesecloth, onion or orange sacks, or a pantyhose leg, which will expand as the squash grows.

Typically, small to medium squash offer the best texture and flavor. The flesh of squash that has been allowed to mature into larger fruit become watery with larger, tougher seeds. These are best used with the seeds removed and grated for zucchini breads of for stuffing and baked.

Varieties of summer squash

• Crookneck squash: These are bright yellow and get their name because as the squash matures the neck narrows and curves. They are great for grilling and sautéing. You haven’t lived until you’ve dug a fork into a delicious yellow squash casserole;

• Patty pan squash: These are sometimes called scalloped squash because of their wavy edges and are similar to crookneck or zucchini squash. They are best harvested young, when just a few inches in diameter, while the skin is still tender and does not require peeling. They can be sliced and sautéed or make an impressive individual serving when stuffed and baked;

• Chayote squash: Also known as pear squash, this is an extremely versatile variety of summer squash. It can be eaten raw, grilled, stir-fried, boiled, baked and steamed. The pale green rind is edible when young but is often peeled as the squash matures. It has a mild and crisp flavor that will remind you of cucumber. The most intriguing application I have seen is as a replacement for apples in a pie; and

• Zucchini squash: This variety has an impressive list of applications in the culinary world. They can be sautéed or stuffed, shredded raw into salads or made into spaghetti ribbons. They have also been used to make pickles, zucchini bread, or breaded and made into “fries.” The fries are delicious when dipped in horseradish or chipotle ranch sauce. A variation of zucchini squash is its cousin, round zucchini, or eight-ball squash. These round versions of the longer zucchini have the same flavor, but their shape makes them perfect for hollowing out, stuffing and baking.

Ratatouille

This recipe originated in Nice, France, and includes the best fresh ingredients from the summer garden, namely, summer squash. Usually a stewed vegetable dish, this one is baked. It can be served as a side or main dish. Until next week, happy gardening and Bon appétit!

Ingredients

• 1 – 6-ounce can tomato paste

• 1/4 onion, chopped

• 5-6 large cloves garlic, minced

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 1/2 cup water

• 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

• Salt and pepper, to taste

• 1 small eggplant, sliced thin

• 1 zucchini, sliced thin

• 1 yellow squash, sliced thin

• 3-4 Roma tomatoes, sliced

• 1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips

• 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced into strips

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine tomato paste, onion, garlic, olive oil, water, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Spread evenly over the bottom of a large round or rectangle oven-proof baking dish.

Alternate eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and tomatoes in rows or in a circle starting from the outside rim and working toward the center. Alternate red and yellow pepper strips on top, either in a circle or in rows. Be creative!

Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle the top with Italian seasoning (or for a variation, drizzle with prepared pesto sauce or add slices of fresh mozzarella).

Cover top with parchment paper, cut to fit the shape of your dish, and press gently onto the surface.

Bake for 45 minutes until vegetables are tender.

— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at kippirland@hotmail.com. For more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners, visit http://mg.aces.edu/limestone.