Summer surplus

                                                                                                                                                         RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                         RON TARVER / Staff Photographer

Tomatoes, basil, zucchini - their abundance can threaten to overwhelm. Here's how to make the best of the bounty.

Posted: August 23, 2012

For months I've waited for my favorite seasonal crops to arrive. But now, instead of two dozen tomatoes and a few tender zucchini, suddenly my kitchen is laden with a bushel and a peck.

This year, determined to stay ahead, I planted only three varieties of summer squash, one plant each, and I promised myself to pick them young. Despite the desire to stay ahead, I have had 35 squash to cook and eat (or give away), and two plants are still going strong.

And then there is the basil. What else besides pesto can you make with the huge bunches of basil exploding in the garden, or on sale everywhere?

If piles of tomatoes, bundles of basil, and dozens of yellow, green, striped, and scalloped squashes are overflowing your garden, farm-share box, or shopping bag, you've got to act - fast.

My remedy is to showcase this trio of abundance in ensemble productions of summer squash, tomatoes, and basil.

I slice young firm zucchini (the green, most familiar summer squash) and yellow squash onto a puff pastry or basic pie dough spread with goat cheese, bake early in the day, and serve at room temperature with a juicy tomato basil salad.

Or I create a free-form open-faced tart with a variety of tomatoes and strips of squash on top of basil Parmesan crust.

These rustic tarts look and taste of the height of summer - a culinary treat to prolong the inevitable march toward fall.

A slightly larger but still tender squash is featured in thin slices, used instead of noodles, in a free-form, room-temperature "lasagna." Layers of roasted zucchini, grilled or roasted slices of tomato, and a basil oil combine to make a dish both light and elegant. This can be assembled quickly in individual portions, or as a larger family-style serving. The slices of zucchini can even be rolled around the filling and served as two-bite appetizers.

At my house we eat fresh tomatoes only in midsummer and fall, when we, or local farms, are harvesting them off the vine. In February it is impossible to imagine tiring of these succulent, juicy, sweet and tart treats, but at some point in August I almost hit overload.

In the first weeks of tomato season I just slice and eat them alone, over greens, or with mozzarella and basil. Every day since July my breakfast has consisted of toast rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil topped with thick slices of tomato well salted and peppered.

By mid-August I've served and eaten several pasta dinners with no-cook chopped fresh tomato-garlic-basil sauce, and had many a side dish of grilled baby zucchini. And the harvest is still rolling in.

One solution: Plum tomatoes can be cooked down with some sugar and herbs or spices for a tart and sweet tomato jam, chutney, or ketchuplike accompaniment to many smoked, baked, grilled or fried dishes - such as zucchini fritters. Toast a slice of zucchini bread and spread it with tomato-basil jam. Yum.

What about the oversize squash given to you by every friend with a garden? Is it even edible? But of course. These mammoths are often, by default, used as vessels and stuffed with a grain or meat and cheese stuffing. The filling might be delicious, but the watery, flavorless, spongy insides of oversize squash often remain behind on the plate.

Instead, grate these squash monsters, season them assertively, add a few eggs and flour, and fry them into fritters. Zucchini bread is another classic use of overgrown summer squash.

Make use of some of that fresh basil by mincing it, adding it to thick yogurt, and making it savory with salt and pepper (and perhaps some minced garlic) to serve along with the fritters and jam. This same basil yogurt can be honey-sweetened to spread on the zucchini bread along with the jam.

Tender small to medium zucchini and yellow squash can also be cut into wedges or strips, breaded with panko or other bread crumbs, and oven- or pan-fried. This crispy appetizer or side dish is great with tomato sauce. Or move away from Mediterranean tastes and serve these "fries" with green tomato Thai-basil salsa.

This shift in flavor profile toward the East might lead you to a smooth coconut-milk green curry-scented soup (served cold or hot) with basil and zucchini, garnished with a swirl of fresh tomato puree. Or stir-fry half moons of zucchini, strips of plum tomatoes, and yellow squash rounds with basil, ginger, and soy sauce to serve over rice.

This fleeting period of abundance from local fields to family table does require all our wits to take full advantage. But the effort is worth it. Zucchini, tomatoes, and basil: Bring 'em on.

Rustic Zucchini-Goat Cheese Tart and Tomato Basil Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 medium summer squash, such as zucchini or yellow squash, or ronde de Nice squash, washed and ends trimmed

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 package puff pastry crust, or enough basic pie crust for 1 9-inch pie

2/3 cup (approx. 1/2 pound) fresh or soft ripened goat cheese at room temperature

7 tablespoons minced basil, divided

1 small clove garlic

2 large tomatoes, cored and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice the squash into rounds or semicircles; if using pattypan squash cut into thin wedges. Oil a baking sheet with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Make a single layer of squash on the baking sheet. Season well with salt and pepper.

2. Roast squash on the lowest rack of the oven, approximately 5 minutes, until the bottoms are just browning. Squash will not be completely cooked. Remove from oven, and reduce heat to 375 degrees.

3. Roll pastry to 1/8-1/4-inch thickness in a rectangular or round shape as you desire on a floured board and transfer carefully to a baking sheet.

4. Mix the goat cheese with 4 tablespoons of minced basil. Spread goat cheese carefully to within one inch of the edge of the crust. Arrange the cooked squash slices browned side down, overlapping them on top of the cheese. Turn the edges of the crust to cover 1/2-1 inch of the filling around the entire perimeter. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until crust is well browned.

5. In a nonreactive bowl, add the remaining 3 tablespoons of minced basil along with the minced garlic to the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the tomatoes. Season well with salt and pepper, stir gently, and let sit.

6. Serve a slice of tart with a heaping spoonful of seasoned chopped tomatoes alongside.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 6): 448 calories, 15 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 33 grams fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 367 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Zucchini "Lasagna" With Roasted Tomatoes and Basil Oil

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups fresh ricotta, farmer cheese, or fresh goat cheese

Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

1 cup loosely packed basil leaves

1 clove garlic minced fine

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for oiling  pans

2 to 3 medium-large (not oversize) zucchini or yellow  squash (or assortment)

6 large, firm, ripe plum  tomatoes

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh grated Parmesan

1. Season the cheese with salt and pepper to taste, add minced basil and stir to combine. Set aside.

2. Add the basil leaves, garlic, cheese, and lemon juice to a blender. Add the olive oil and blend, turning the machine on and off several times, until the mixture is smooth and pureed. Taste and adjust salt. Add fresh ground pepper. This mixture can be prepared up to several hours ahead.

3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Oil a baking sheet. Slice the squash longitudinally into 1/4-inch slices. Lay the slices so they do not touch and season one side with salt and pepper. Bake on the lower rack of the oven until the bottom is browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from oven and turn each slice. Return to the oven for an additional 3 to 5 minutes. The slices should be just browned. Remove from oven and let cool.

4. On a separate oiled baking sheet place sliced rounds of tomatoes and season well. Bake until just browned and remove from the oven. You want the tomatoes to retain their shape so don't overcook.

5. On a serving platter lay about half of the cooked zucchini in a rectangle approximately 5 inches by 11 inches. The slices will overlap. Spread this with half of the seasoned cheese. Lay the zucchini on top of the cheese. Top this with the remaining cheese, spreading carefully.

6. Layer the roasted tomato slices on the top layer of cheese. Drizzle the top with basil oil. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Slice carefully with a serrated or long slicing knife. This dish is best served at room temperature, so assemble just before serving or remove from refrigerated storage at least 1/2 hour before serving.

Per serving (based on 6): 360 calories, 12 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 31 grams fat, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 189 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Crispy Zucchini Fritters With Spicy Tomato Jam and Basil Yogurt Sauce

Makes 15 to 18 fritters or 4 to 6 servings

4 cups grated zucchini or other summer squash

1 small onion minced very fine

2 eggs

1/3 cup flour

1 tablespoon fine or medium cornmeal

Salt and pepper

Olive or canola oil for frying

1. Place the grated squash in a clean dish towel. Twist the ends of the towel together and squeeze the contents to expel as much liquid as possible.

2. Add the dry grated zucchini to a mixing bowl along with the onion. Add the eggs and mix well. Add the flour, cornmeal, and salt and pepper and mix until well combined.

3. Heat oil until shimmering (approximately 330 degrees) in a high-sided skillet. Gently lower heaping tablespoons of fritter mixture into the hot oil and press gently with the back of a spoon to flatten. Let cook until the edges are quite brown and the bottom is firm. Turn carefully and cook on the second side. These pancakelike fritters are delicate, and will retain their shape better if turned only once.

4. Serve with tomato jam and basil yogurt, a favorite salsa, or some juicy chopped tomatoes.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 6): 132 calories, 4 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 29 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Tomato Jam

Makes 11/2 cups

3 to 4 cups chopped tomatoes

1 cup sugar

1 hot chili pepper, minced, seeds optional (or to taste)

1. Add all ingredients to a heavy saucepan.

2. Bring slowly to a boil, then simmer over medium heat, stirring from time to time until thickened like jam, about an hour.

- From Anna Herman

Per tablespoon: 36 calories, trace protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, no fat, no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Basil Yogurt

Makes about 1 cup or 1 to 2 servings

1 cup thick yogurt (either buy Greek style or let 1 1/2 cups of plain yogurt drain through a piece of cheesecloth for about two hours)

1/4 cup minced basil

1 clove garlic, crushed or minced finely

Sea salt and fresh black pepper

1. Stir ingredients together until combined. Taste and adjust seasonings.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 2): 72 calories, 9 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 28 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Zucchini "Fries" With Green Tomato Thai Basil Dipping Sauce

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 to 3 zucchini or yellow squash or a mixture

2 to 3 eggs

1 1 /2 cups panko breadcrumbs

Sea salt and fresh ground  black pepper


1. Cut the ends off the squash. Depending on the exact size of your squash you need to determine how to divide it into fry-size pieces. For most medium-sized squash you can cut each tubular squash crossways into two rounds. Set each half on its end and make 1/2-inch slices longways. Each of these slices can be cut into 2 to 3 "sticks." Basically you want to end up with "baton"-shaped pieces approximately 3 inches by 1/2 inch by ¾ inch.

2. Prepare for breading. Beat the eggs in a small bowl. Place a plate with the breadcrumbs next to the eggs. Season the breadcrumbs with salt and lots of fresh ground pepper. Working in batches use one hand to coat the squash sticks with egg; using this same hand place the eggy squash one or two at a time onto the plate with the breadcrumbs. Using your other (dry) hand, press the squash and turn to coat each piece on all sides. Remove to a dry plate and continue until all squash pieces are coated.

3. In a skillet with high sides heat approximately 3 inches of oil until it shimmers or is measured at 330 degrees. Place the breaded squash into the oil gently, let cook until browned, turning once. Taste one and decide whether you need salt and pepper before serving.

4. Serve these fries with Thai basil sauce or fresh tomato sauce, or with just a squeeze of fresh lemon.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 6): 138 calories, 6 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 225 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Green Tomato Thai Basil Salsa

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 to 2 green tomatoes, cored and cut into small chunks; reserve all juice

3 to 4 tablespoons minced Thai basil (or Italian basil)

1 teaspoon green curry paste, quite spicy, optional, but so good

Splash of fermented fish sauce (nam pla), also optional

1 tablespoon minced onion

1 small clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper

1. Mix ingredients together, taste and season with salt and pepper.

- From Anna Herman


Per serving (based on 6): 12 calories, trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 75 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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