Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Squash for a taste of summer, now

Red, white, and blue are the typical colors of choice for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, but any backyard cookout celebrating the unofficial start to summer can certainly do with a dash of yellow, too — from summer squash.

Its sunny color and very name herald the season ahead.

Native to the western hemisphere, summer squash is a genuine American treat as well. It’s early yet for local growers to being picking their squash crop, but plenty is available from the southern states. At Cassidy Farms in Monroeville, on the border of Gloucester and Salem counties, some 125 acres of summer squash are getting ready to bloom, according to George Cassidy. Even though zucchini, or green summer squash, is locally preferred over yellow summer squash by about three to one, he raises more yellow than green, which he sells wholesale under the “Pride of the Irish” brand. “Yellow squash tends to be more popular in New England and down south,” he said. Demand for the crop, he added, is strong.

“The stuff that’s harder to prepare is getting less and less popular, and the stuff that’s easier to prepare — which squash is — is getting more popular,” said John Dreyer of Dreyer Farms in Cranford, who allots about a third of his summer squash acreage to yellow varieties. “Chop it, steam it for 10 minutes, done.” He expects to begin harvesting his crop toward the end of June and, like his colleagues to the south, continue until frost.

Other growers, like Ken Ravenburg of Tradition Farms in Pattenburg, time their first round of summer squash harvesting to coincide with that of their main crop (in his case, peaches) for sale in July.

Encompassing a wide array of varieties that can be baton-shaped or round, smooth or scalloped, and ranging in color from pale ivory to forest green, summer squash is any squash that’s harvested when immature, so that its soft skin and small seeds can be easily consumed along with the tender flesh.

In contrast to winter squash, such as the acorn and butternut types — which develop tough, thick skins and large crunchy seeds and can be stored for months — summer squash is meant to be eaten as close to harvest as possible. Yellow squash can further be divided into straightneck and crookneck varieties. The curved yellow crookneck, which is believed to have originated in New Jersey, was popular among the Lenape who inhabited the Delaware Valley before the arrival of European colonists. These days, however, “the only place they raise crookneck squash is down south.

Up north they don’t eat crooked neck,” said Cassidy. Farmers find that crookneck varieties can be troublesome to pick. “Sometimes they’ll snap,” said Cassidy. But fans insist that they taste sweeter than straightneck types.

Even before the squashes form, their spiny plants yield tasty morsels in the form of brilliantly hued blossoms. Now considered an Italian specialty, squash blossoms were a popular delicacy in the days of the Aztec ruler Montezuma, according to food historian Waverly Root. Mark Pascal, co-owner of Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants in New Brunswick and co-host of “The Restaurant Guys,” a radio talk show, sends out an email to his customers announcing the arrival of the season’s first squash blossoms. “It brings 100, 200 people into the restaurant just for that,” he said.

Cassidy’s clients prefer zucchini blossoms over yellow squash blossoms, which are smaller, he said. But both can be used to good effect, said Pascal, who counts the aroma and taste of his grandmother’s savory pancakes made with squash blossoms as one of his favorite childhood memories. Indeed, any squash blossom, even those from fall pumpkins and winter squashes, will do.

Although bigger is better when it comes to blossoms, especially those intended for stuffing, the opposite is true for summer squash itself. The larger the squash gets, the tougher its skin and the bigger its seeds become, explained Dreyer. He prefers to harvest his summer squash when it’s no more than about six inches long, with the diameter of a silver dollar. Yet, noted Ron Gassaway, vegetable manager at Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck, “The smaller they are, the faster they tend to go soft. That’s the downside. They larger they are, the better they keep.”

Both summer squash and their blossoms are ideal vehicles for other flavors, said Pascal. He favors a soup of roasted summer squash pureed with chicken stock. At Catherine Lombardi, sauteed yellow squash and zucchini are used to top a fried polenta appetizer.

For this weekend, cooks may want to take a cue from Mario Batali’s most recent book, “Italian Grill” (Ecco, $29.95), in which he suggests grilling squash slices that have been marinated in a vinaigrette made from ½ cup of olive oil, ¼ cup of red wine vinegar, and a teaspoon each of black olive paste, oregano, celery seeds and red pepper flakes. Cut into chunks and similarly marinated, squash adds color, flavor, and nutrients to any kebob preparation as well — whether it’s really summer or not.