Occasionally my cookbook habit (some would say “problem”) has proven extremely helpful outside of the kitchen. To wit: last week, Rich went and nearly ruined his shoes riding his bike home in the pouring rain. This was entirely preventable, since I had announced to him that morning that I was taking the bus and leaving my bike at home due to the forecast. But, he, and nearly everyone I talked to that day, sniffed at the idea that it could rain like that in August, especially after the steamy July we’d just been through. But rain it did, buckets and buckets. And that night, while Rich stuffed crumpled grocery circulars into his shoes, I curled up on the couch with the cookbook that had given me the heads up.
I found The Old-Time New England Cookbook in a box labeled $1 at a gastronomy event last year. It’s seasonal and local with a certain Yankee particularity; think of the Farmer’s Almanac but with recipes. The book breaks down the New England year not into four seasons, but rather nine. Instead of summer, we have early summer, regular summer and the end of summer, which as it turns out, runs from August 2 to September 9. The opening sentence of that chapter provided my meteorological tip-off: “The rainy spell you may be complaining about in August lasts longer than most people believe it should.”
The next sentence has proven equally uncanny in predicting the bounty of my CSA this month: “As August gets on a bit, however, there will be corn and tomatoes, beans, swiss chard, spinach, summer squash, young potatoes, and all sorts of wonderful fresh vegetables in the back-yard garden. The worst of it is, of course, that when these vegetables do start showing up there is always an oversupply. Can or freeze, we say, and this rainy spell in August is just the time to do it.”
As if on cue, so far this month we’ve received pounds of summer squash and piles of corn. I’m not complaining, and neither is Rich. We’ve become very fond of this dish, eating it roughly twice a week for three weeks now. But the last time I made this, for last week’s Shabbat dinner, it was something particularly special.
After much thought, I’ve come to understand there are two things happening in this dish. The first is tarragon, the herb which has reigned supreme in the Parr household since early last summer. It usually shows up in my beans; Rich likes to use it when he cooks chicken and fish. In this dish, tarragon’s sweet licorice flavor coaxes out the squash’s inherent sweetness – the word caramel comes to mind whenever I take a bite.
The second thing happening here is taking the time needed to cook the onions. I must cook them down for about 45 minutes, until they’ve basically melted, before I could even think about adding the squash. I think in other dishes there’s more wriggle room, but here the onions really need the extra time.
As you can see from the photos, the squash I used this time around was made with globe squash, but rest assured this is a catch-all summer squash recipe: yellow straight neck, crookneck and zucchini are also more than welcome to join the party. In all honesty, I’ve never tried this with a pattypan, so if someone ends up getting some in the next few weeks, could you please let me know how it turns out?
Summer Squash with Tarragon and Whole Wheat Pasta
2 cups summer squash, cut into 1½-inch pieces
½ onion, diced – any onion will work well with this dish
1½ Tablespoons tarragon, chopped
Enough oil to cover the pan
½ pound of whole wheat pasta (I prefer linguine for this dish)
Set a large pot of water, salted like the sea, to boil on a back burner. On a front burner, heat enough olive oil to coat a pan on medium heat. Give it a minute or two to heat up, then add the onions and a nice-sized pinch of kosher salt. Turn the flame down and let the onions slowly cook and melt down. This should take about 45 minutes. Every four minutes or so, stir them with a wooden spoon.
When your onions have finally broken down – I’m talking a browned, soft puddle of onions – add the squash and a second pinch of salt. Cook the squash for about 10 minutes, stirring every three or so with the wooden spoon. Please don’t get nervous about the texture of the squash. Many people complain about its wet, squishy quality, but I promise that the strength of the pasta balances it.
At this point, your pasta water is roiling. Add the pasta, and cook it for approximately three minutes less than the suggested cooking time.
At that three minute point, use tongs to transfer the hot pasta into your pan of onions and squash. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the pan, and the tarragon, and cook everything together for a good three minutes or so, until the pasta has finished cooking. (Taste it before you turn the flame off to make sure it’s softened. Add more pasta water as necessary.)