There's no escaping summer squash.
This time of year, certain varieties of the gourd family are everywhere, and worth embracing. Mild in flavor and softer than winter types like butternut, summer squash is inexpensive and can be eaten raw or cooked, shaved or cubed, hot or cold. During warmer months, these types of squash are especially abundant: green and yellow zucchini, yellow crookneck (the common yellow squash seen in grocery stores) and the less ubiquitous round squash and pattypan. There's also chayote, a pale green squash that grows in warmer climates including Florida, and squash blossoms, the gorgeous, dainty orange flowers of the squash plant. These blossoms, which are more prevalent in the spring when the squash plants are blooming, taste faintly like squash and are typically stuffed with far less nutritious things, like bread and cheese, then fried.
When you're buying squash, look for ones that are heavy for their size and firm, not soft. Opt for smaller ones, as squash tends to get more bitter the bigger it grows, especially with the long, oval-shaped varieties. Use them within three to four days of purchase for their best taste and texture. (For squash blossoms, it's best to use them immediately.) The zucchini and yellow crookneck types don't need much cooking. Round squash and pattypan squash benefit from some roasting.
Another thing to know about summer squash is that it gives off lots of moisture. If you're using it in a recipe that calls for grating it or cooking it in oil, make sure to blot the squash after cutting or grating it, or sprinkle it with salt and let it sit on a paper towel for a few minutes to let the moisture seep out.
Photos from istockphoto.com
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the bunch is classic green zucchini. Zucchini also comes in shades of yellow. The yellow ones tend to be a bit more tender than the green ones but you should treat and cook them the same. This type is ideal for raw squash ribbon salads, and for grating into baked goods like muffins. (See our Olive Oil Zucchini Muffins recipe here.)
These are easy to spot in the grocery store because of their signature curved tops, or "crookneck" shape. When people think of yellow squash, this is usually what they think of. The skins on this type bruise rather easily; they're very tender and cook quickly.
These look like small pumpkins, except they are green, yellow or white in color and grow during the warmer months. (I found a pile of these at a local farmers market last week.) Their round shape makes them ideal for stuffing, and their tougher quality means they stand up well to roasting.
These odd-looking squash are pale green on the outside, almost like a Granny Smith apple, and white inside. They're grown in hotter climates, including Florida, and are therefore popular in Latin American cooking. There's a soft seed in the center that should be removed before eating. Chayote squash has a rather bland taste but has good texture for use in stews and casseroles.
With a squat, saucerlike shape, pattypans are one of the most visually distinctive kinds of squash. They usually are yellow but come in light or dark green, too. They have a rather buttery, sweet flavor and are good in soups or just sauteed.