Squash your hunger

Zucchini and its cousins make for low-calorie sautes that work well as side dishes or appetizers.

zucchini 88 (photo credit: )
zucchini 88
(photo credit: )
If you grow summer squashes, you probably have plenty this time of year. And if you don't garden, you'll find zucchini and kishuim, or pale-green skinned summer squash, featured at good prices in the markets. Our kishuim go by many names in American recipes, gardening manuals and produce markets, including Middle Eastern squash, cusa, Lebanese squash, Mexican squash, white squash and clarita squash; British cooks call them courgettes and refer to larger ones as vegetable marrows. This season, you may come across summer squash in other shapes, like fluted pattypan squash and round zucchini, both of which are good for stuffing. You can use different squashes interchangeably in cooking, though I find that yellow squash and kishuim are slightly sweeter than dark green-skinned zucchini. Some gardeners complain about over-abundance, but I see the squash plants' exuberance as a blessing. They are a dieter's delight - so low in calories that in most nutrition plans they are permitted in unlimited quantities. Cooks in a hurry appreciate that squash are one of the fastest cooking of all vegetables and are a snap to prepare - effortless to cut, and with practically nothing to trim off. Summer squashes may not be sexy enough to star in many signature specialties of restaurants, but you will find them in a supporting role in many classics, from French ratatouille to Italian minestrone to Moroccan Shabbat couscous to Yemenite meat soup. Zucchini were prized by the Jews of ancient Rome, wrote Edda Servi Machlin in Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, especially as an appetizer called concia, from which the poor made a meal with plenty of bread. To prepare it, you dry thin slices of zucchini several hours, fry them in olive oil and marinate them with garlic, shredded basil, salt, pepper and wine vinegar. For mashed squash, Machlin cooks the vegetable with olive oil, onion, basil, parsley, salt, pepper and a little water, stirring often so the squash falls apart. This makes a lighter summertime alternative to mashed potatoes. Very fresh zucchini taste delicious, even simply boiled. Often I cook a colorful trio of summer squash, carrots and broccoli (or cauliflower or green beans). I cut the zucchini in sticks, the carrots in slices and the broccoli in florets, and the dish is cooked in about six minutes; I add the tender squash when the other vegetables are half-cooked. As soon as the vegetables are tender, I remove them and save the cooking liquid to use in soups, or as a cold drink on hot days. Small, slim young squashes taste good even raw, like in California chef John Ash's zucchini and yellow squash salad with feta, enhanced with Kalamata olives, sweet pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and a dressing of olive oil and raspberry vinegar in his book, From the Earth to the Table. If you don't mind a few more calories, you can saute the squash; they don't need much oil and become tender in minutes. Add a bit of chopped garlic and fresh coriander or parsley shortly before you turn off the heat. Serve sauteed squash as an accompaniment, an omelet filling or tossed with noodles. Kishuim help to expand the volume of many pasta and grain dishes, so you feel like you're eating a bigger portion. I add sliced squashes to chicken soup and grated ones to savory noodle kugels, macaroni and cheese casseroles and rice and bulgur wheat pilafs. Zucchini and its relatives fit everywhere in the meal, even dessert. A casual Indian cafe in Los Angeles makes tasty squash halva with sugar, butter, golden raisins and cardamom. Some squashes hide under the plant's large leaves and, during hot weather, rapidly become huge - but they still can be good; peel them if their skin is tough. A neighbor of mine often requested my large ones to use in zucchini cake, which she made just like carrot cake. ZUCCHINI AND LEEKS WITH SWEET PEPPER, GARLIC AND THYME Serve this colorful vegetable saute as a side dish, or spooned over brown or white rice and sprinkled with toasted nuts as a light main dish. The vegetables are finished with a "persillade," or sauteed garlic and parsley, a favorite French flavoring. For an eggplant variation, see Note below. Makes 4 servings 2 medium-size leeks, white and light green parts only 700 gr. small zucchini or kishuim 5 or 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 sweet red pepper, cut in strips 6 mm. wide 2 celery ribs, peeled and cut in thin strips Salt and freshly ground pepper 2 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme, or 2 tsp. dried thyme, crumbled 5 garlic cloves, minced 2 Tbsp. minced parsley Cut leeks in half lengthwise and soak in cold water 15 minutes. Check between layers to be sure no sand remains, and rinse thoroughly. Cut in 5-cm. pieces, press to flatten, and cut in 6-mm. lengthwise slices to make thin strips. Cut each zucchini in 3 pieces crosswise, then in thin strips of about 6 mm. x 6 mm. Heat 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet. Add leeks and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, 5 minutes. Add red pepper, celery, salt, pepper and thyme, and cook, tossing often, about 5 minutes, or until vegetables are nearly tender. Add zucchini and cook, tossing often, about 3 minutes, or until zucchini is crisp-tender. Remove vegetables to serving dish and keep warm. Wipe skillet clean. Add remaining olive oil and heat it. Add garlic and cook over low heat about 30 seconds, or until barely tender but not brown. Add parsley and heat 2 or 3 seconds. Pour mixture over vegetables, toss thoroughly, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately. NOTE: To make a zucchini and eggplant saute with leeks, substitute eggplant for half the zucchini. Cut in thin strips and saute in 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat about 7 minutes. Add to rest of vegetables along with zucchini. ZUCCHINI WITH ROMANO CHEESE AND BASIL This Sardinian formula features a very simple, aromatic way to embellish sauteed zucchini with plenty of chopped fresh basil and a sprinkling of flavorful cheese. In Italy, the preferred cheese is pecorino romano made with ewes' milk, but you can use any flavorful grating cheese. Makes 3 servings as an appetizer or side dish 450 gr. zucchini or kishuim 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper 3 Tbsp. freshly grated pecorino-romano or Parmesan cheese 1⁄3 cup chopped fresh basil Slice zucchini in 6-mm. rounds. Heat oil in a large skillet, add zucchini and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Saute over medium-high heat, stirring and turning them over often, about 8 minutes or until tender and very lightly dotted with brown. Transfer to a shallow serving dish, add 2 tablespoons cheese and all but 1 tablespoon basil and mix well. Serve sprinkled with remaining cheese and basil. Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.