Amid the myriad of jewel-toned produce available right now at local markets and farm stands are striking little vegetables (technically they're fruits) vaguely reminiscent of flying saucers. These cheerful little cucurbits, known as patty pans, are a type of summer squash closely related to the more recognizable green and yellow zucchini, with a similar texture and buttery flavor. When harvested small these delicate little squash have a very thin skin and therefore require very little preparation in order to be enjoyed. As the fruit matures on the plant, which has a growth habit similar to zucchini and other summer squash, the skin becomes tougher and the seeds larger. In such cases peeling and seeding is often in order, but the flesh is still delicious and can be sautéed, roasted, made into soup or shredded and used in baked goods.
Patty pan squash are fun to grow and do extremely well in containers, especially when paired with colorful nasturtiums, which help to repel pesky squash bugs. It's not too late to start some from seed, even this far into summer. A true garden workhorse, a patty pan squash plant will begin yielding fruit in just over 50 days, so plants started in mid-July should begin producing around the first or second week in September and continue to provide a bounty of little squashes all the way to frost. Be sure to choose a large container that's at least 15 gallons and include a generous quantity of compost along with good quality potting mix. In addition to the tasty and versatile fruits, the blossoms are edible and much desired by cooks in the know. Harvest blossoms in the morning before they fully open. Once in the kitchen check each blossom to make sure there are no bugs lounging inside, use your fingers to remove any pistil or stamen, then gently wash the blossoms and pat them dry with a towel. Squash blossoms are delicious sautéed right alongside the squash itself. Wait to add the flowers to the pan until the final moments of cooking.
When shopping for patty pan squash, look for firm fruits with shiny skin and, once home, store them in the fridge in a zip-close bag along with a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture. Stored this way, patty pans and most other types of summer squash will keep for about a week. These delightful little squash are not only versatile, they are extremely low in calories and rich in fiber, vitamin C and potassium.
From basic to a little bit fancy, here are some no-recipe ideas for preparing patty pan squash:
-Make kebabs for the grill with small patty pan squash, colorful peppers, red onion, mushrooms and protein.
-Brush a prebaked flatbread with olive oil then top with crumbled goat cheese or feta, thinly sliced patty pan squash and chopped herbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 7-8 minutes until the squash is lightly browned and the cheese is bubbly.
-Toss small whole or quartered patty pans with olive oil, salt and herbs and roast in a 425-degree oven until tender and browned.
-Sauté patty pan squash along with sliced peppers, onions and fresh or frozen sweet corn, and a can of drained black beans in a hot pan with some olive oil. Add garlic, cumin, fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime, then use this to top a bowl of steamed quinoa or roll up in a tortilla.
-Slice off the stem end of patty pan squash then use a melon baller or small spoon to scoop out some of the flesh. Combine sausage, breadcrumbs, herbs, grated cheese and an egg, then use that mixture to fill the hollowed out patty pans (sprinkle the empty squash with a little salt and pepper before filling). Sprinkle some additional cheese on top, then bake in a 400-degree oven until the sausage mixture is cooked through (155 degrees on a meat thermometer), about 20 minutes depending on the size of the squash. Serve as a standalone appetizer or alongside pasta with your favorite red sauce and a fresh green salad.
-Small patty pan squash are striking in a summery vegetable chowder. In a heavy-bottomed soup pot on medium heat melt three tablespoons of butter, then add a diced onion and a red pepper along with some minced garlic and sauté until softened. Add three tablespoons of flour and cook a minute more, then add four cups of hot milk and a diced potato. Season with salt and pepper and simmer about eight minutes. Add about a cup of corn kernels and 3-4 cups quartered patty pan squash. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes more. Check for seasoning and serve with chopped parsley.
-Brush hollowed-out squash with olive oil inside and out and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until just tender. (The baked squash cups can be made up to two days ahead and stored in the refrigerator.) Remove them from the oven and crack an egg into each baked squash cup. Top with herbs and cheese as desired and return to the oven. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until eggs are set, about 15 minutes.