A phrase you will never see: Big bold summer squash flavor! Not gonna happen. Which is why I’ll take my warm weather squash raw, as in this Summer Squash Salad with Purple Basil, Shaved Parmesan and a Garlicky Lemon Vinaigrette. Very thinly sliced, please, so I can appreciate the mild flavor and crunchy texture, ideally accented by a summery dressing, like the garlicky lemon vinaigrette that tops this preparation. Throw in some shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and I’m in heaven. And nobody even turned on the oven.
Back in the days when American salad was still imprisoned in icebergian shackles, my mother-in-law would pass a large wooden bowl during family gatherings, extending it to me with the gentle inquiry, “Salad?” To which I would reply, “Why?”
This was a Frick and Frack* routine we had worked out together and which she generously found funny. For the life of me, with alternatives like dinosaur kale with preserved lemon, garlic and anchovies, or any of a thousand cabbage-carrot-radish slaws with lime juice, nuac nam and fish sauce that flood the internet these days, I don’t understand why iceberg lettuce salad hasn’t gone the way of that other little side-dish horror show of the 1950’s, stewed tomatoes. Even my mother-in-law’s humblest summer gatherings — exemplars of tradition — are now likely to include sliced tomatoes, in season, dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette flavored with curly parsley, or layered with delicate rounds of fresh mozzarella, the platter drizzled with evoo and balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with basil leaves. You can have your (interesting, and tasty) salad and eat it too.
So, break out your mandolines – the squashes are coming, and even the most dedicated knife ninja will tire of trying to slice a pound and a half of them. The nasturtiums on this salad are optional, although farmers’ markets now seem to include edible flowers as a matter of seasonal course. Nasturtiums aren’t just a pretty face. They provide a peppery accent, as well as tarting up the presentation.
“Why, yes. Thank you.”
*Comic Swiss skating duo from the early days of the Ice Capades.
Summer Squash Salad with Purple Basil, Shaved Parmesan and and Garlicky Lemon Vinaigrette
- 1¼ pounds small tender squash (e.g. summer, zucchini and patty pans)
- 1 large bunch purple basil (we also used bush basil), enough for 1½ cups small or torn leaves
- 1 Meyer lemon
- 2 garlic cloves
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced into rounds, about 1 cup
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano shavings
- 15 to 20 nasturtium blossoms or other edible flowers (optional)
- Trim the stems off the squashes. Using a mandoline, slice the squashes thinly.
- Remove the basil leaves from the stems. Wash and dry well. Tear the leaves into large pieces. You should have 1½ cups.
- Zest and juice the lemon and put the zest and juice into a small bowl.
- Using a microplane, grate the garlic into the bowl. Whisk in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Pour into a pitcher.
- Put the squash, scallion and basil into a salad bowl, season with salt and pepper and toss well. Add the Parmesan shavings and toss again.
- If using flowers, sprinkle the flowers over the top.
- Serve the salad with the vinaigrette and let people drizzle as they will. You’ll probably have some leftover dressing which you can use with the salad tomorrow.
I wish I’d known 40 years ago, when I had my first, (and last)* vegetable garden, that zucchini can be delicious raw. I planted peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, beets and even okra, but the only thing I really harvested was zucchini. It never let up. I’d come back after a day away and there’d be a squash the size of a newborn. Doesn’t Garrison Keilor warn folks to roll up their windows and lock their doors when parking in a small town in July and August, lest they return to their car and find a zucchini in the passenger seat?
I learned to make all kinds of zucchini things — from the ubiquitous zucchini bread of the 1970’s to Zucchini Parmesan and Zucchini Pickle, but it wasn’t until I traveled to Italy years later that I learned about shaved raw zucchini salad. This is a version of one we’re serving on a bluefish dish at Rialto this summer. We use a variety of squashes and shred a few squash blossom flowers into the mix. Be sure to use tender young squash. They’re sweet with a great soft and crunchy texture. Let people dress their servings themselves. This is a delicate salad that will will collapse into a lump if it’s dressed and then sits too long.
*I don’t have a garden. I don’t even have an herb garden and I don’t want one. I kill things. I know this is sacrilege these days for a chef. We’re expected to run our restaurants, make everything in house from pickles to cured meats and cheeses, and then to be sure to start the day weeding in our vegetable gardens, or better yet, on our farms. Oh, and don’t forget foraging for wild plants too. Basta! I’ve been buying from expert farmers for years who do an amazing job. I’m fine with that.