What Southern Folks Eat - Bell's Best recipe for summer squash
“Summer was everything good to eat…a thousand colors in a parched landscape…” - Harper Lee
Summertime is the best time of the year for fresh produce, with its abundance of tomatoes, corn, berries, and squash. It's so easy to eat healthily and actually enjoy it with the abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit we have in our grocery stores and produce stands this time of year, even during a pandemic.
I visited a local farm stand on Saturday, and happily purchased some blackberries, green tomatoes and yellow crookneck squash, among other things, to take home for supper. In my excitement to cook fresh local produce, I pulled out another of my favorites from my cookbook collection, looking specifically for a new way to use yellow squash that I, somehow, hadn’t thought of yet.
Squash is one of the first things that shows up in local farmers markets when the weather is warm, and I am taking advantage of the tender, small squash while it’s at its sweetest. I love to experiment with the prolific vegetables each year, using them in salads, pastas, soups, stir-fries, and other simple summer fare. Of course, the way many of us in the South grew up eating summer squash was boiled with onions. Though I grew up with that method in our family kitchen, I never cared much for it, which is why I try to use the tender yellow veggie in other ways.
Back in the 1990s, my mother-in-law gave me a cookbook entitled "Bell’s Best," published in 1981 by Telephone Pioneers of America, Mississippi Chapter 36. The 785 pages are filled with all kinds of home-y recipes from women across Mississippi, from crunchy beef-bake casserole and broken glass torte (a jello dessert) to shrimp gumbo and berry cobblers. It was already a bit dog-eared by the time she passed it down to me.
Now, after years of using it frequently in my own kitchen, it’s really a mess. The binding has broken, so the book is now comprised of three separate, loose sections. The cover is a mess, with spots of sauces splashed here and there. But I treasure this cookbook, not only because Susan gave it to me, but because I cooked from it for my young husband back in the early ‘90s, and later for our three sons, as well. Nowadays, I skim its pages looking for inspiration, tried-and-true things to make in a new way, and even old things that I’ve never tried before.
I perused the vegetable section Monday. There were eight recipes with squash as the star of the show. There were numerous others, of course, in which it played a supporting role, as in soups and casseroles. The prevalence of various squashes featured in the cookbook made it clear that the humble vegetable (technically a fruit, but we’ll discuss that some other time!) has been a favorite of Southerners for many, many years. In fact, according to the New World Encyclopedia, "archaeological evidence suggests that squash may have been first cultivated in Mesoamerica some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.” It eventually made its way up to North America, and it has been noted that the Iroquois cultivated it alongside their corn and beans in the 1700s, calling the trio of vegetables the “three sisters."
Aren’t we glad?
As I thumbed through Bell’s Best, I came across a recipe for stuffed squash that included a filling of bread crumbs, cottage cheese, and eggs. I liked the idea, but wanted to change up the filling to make it more flavorful and interesting.
Here’s what I came up with; I hope you enjoy it as much as we did at dinner tonight!
Summer Squash with Green Tomato-Ricotta Filling
4 small-to-medium-sized yellow squash (or zucchini)
1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
1 cup diced peeled green tomato
1 1/2 cups torn collard green leaves
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon hot sauce, or to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup part skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup shaved Parmesan or Parmigiana Reggiano cheese
Wash the whole squashes, then cut off each end.
Place the squashes in a colander over a pot of simmering water, and cover (or use a double boiler)
Steam the squashes for 15 minutes, then carefully remove to cutting board
When cool enough to handle, slice them in half lengthwise, and scrape out seeds. Scrape out any flesh left after scraping the seeds out into a small mixing bowl, and set it aside. You should now have “squash boats.”
Put a tablespoon of olive oil into a skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the mushrooms, tomato, collard greens, garlic, and any squash flesh you may have been able to scrape out of the halves, and begin to stir. Sauté for five minutes, adding 1/4 cup water if mixture seems too dry, then add hot sauce. Stir another two minutes, then remove to a bowl.
Add the ricotta and Parmesan to the sautéed vegetables. Fold together, making sure the vegetables are gently but thoroughly incorporated into the cheeses.
Taste for saltiness; add some, if needed. (Typically, the cheese lends enough salt to these fillings.)
Add the filling back into the squash halves, then place them in a baking dish that you’ve sprayed with cooking spray.
Sprinkle with more Parmesan, and then bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t allow to dry out; time will vary by oven.
Serve as a wonderfully tasty side dish alongside your favorite grilled meat all summer long. Enjoy!
Make sure to visit starfl.com for more recipes from previous What Southern Folks Eat columns, several which feature more squash recipes!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com and at Facebook.com/whatsouthernfolkseat.