Thai Basil Summer Squash

posted in: Recipes, Sides & Salads | 8

I got the most interesting heirloom summer squashes the other day at the Greenmarket. Warted, striped, crook-necked, and very heavy for their size and dense in flesh, I didn’t think it too appropriate to make something just “everyday” with them. No, these specimens deserved the spotlight for a seasonal side dish of their own.

I recently drilled my home-fermenting hero (Sandor Ellix Katz, of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation) on my podcast, Let’s Eat In, and he called out summer squashes like zucchini as one ingredient that didn’t fare too well with fermentation, because they just sort of turn into mush. About a year ago, I’d asked Rick Field, local pickling guru of Rick’s Picks, what ingredient he would never pickle, and he too singled out summer squashes, for the same reason. (We lamented past failed attempts: “They looked nice…”) So I knew from the get-go that it was best to use these strange-looking squashes fresh and preferably very lightly cooked, if at all.

heirloom squashes from Evolutionary Organics Farm

This led me to the sautee pan, with a ready hand to take them off as soon as humanly possible after the high heat. I love the crisp-tender texture and golden-brown patches of quickly seared pieces of zucchini or summer squash. But would just garlic, olive oil, and a dusting of sea salt really do these ones their due justice? Yes, it would, I reckoned. But heck if I didn’t enjoy this “everyday” way to sautee in Thailand: with garlic, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and fresh basil.

basil, garlic, chilies and lime 

a few drops of fish sauce blends with brown sugar, soy sauce and lime juice

I’ve made similarly seasoned dishes with Asian eggplant, and with chicken and vegetables before. Thin strips of marinated beef with bell peppers or green beans is another common way to enjoy the sweet, spicy, sour, and pungent flavors here. One key component is a bottle of Thai fish sauce, a fermented extraction of fish (often anchovies) that’s exceptionally odiferous on its own, but adds instant character to foods when used in small quantity. It blends gracefully with some sugar, fresh lime juice and a few drops of soy sauce, and I enjoy the fresh spice of a few chilies, garlic, and whole basil leaves as with many a “Thai basil [fill in the blank]” renditions.

Thai basil leaves would have been the appropriate herb in question. This variety has serrated-edged leaves and a sharp, somewhat anisey flavor than the sweet Italian basil that I’m growing at home. But in a pinch, the latter version sufficed just fine, and throwing in handfuls of them fresh for the last toss in the pan wilted them just enough so that you couldn’t visibly tell the difference. I’ve also added some thin blades of regular onion to sautee along with the squashes, just for a little more variety in the dish.

chunky pieces of squash ready for a quick sautee

Just like with any stir-fry, you’ll want to assemble everything you need to season and stir around in the pan, as the action will all be done in a hot minute or so. Place the sauce mixture within easy reach and have your vegetables, chilies and garlic chopped up before you heat the pan. I cut the summer squashes into irregular-shaped chunks (there was really no other way to do it, given their crooked necks), and let them sizzle on a very hot pan just until a little browned in parts. Once this happens, there’s a fine line between the point they’re just tender enough and sodden sponges of mush. Err on the side of crispness, and pour in the sauce sooner than you might expect. It’s a thin, brownish-colored sauce that will get absorbed in each of the squash pieces after a quick toss. Don’t sautee this much longer after it’s been poured in. A quick taste for seasoning, and shower of basil leaves, and this dish is ready to serve as a healthful and uniquely tasty side.

Thai Basil Summer Squash
(makes about 2 side dish servings)

4-6 small heirloom summer squashes, ends trimmed and cut to longish pieces no thinner than 1/2″
1/2 onion, thickly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 small Thai chilies, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
salt and pepper to taste

for the sauce:
juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar (preferably brown sugar)

12-15 fresh Thai basil leaves (or substitute Italian basil)

Combine the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Heat a wide sautee pan with the oil over high, and add the garlic and chilies. Once fragrant and the oil is very hot, add the squash and onions along with pinches of salt and pepper. Spread them around so that most of the squash pieces have direct contact with the pan and don’t move for about ten seconds or so. Stir them around and repeat.

Once there are light golden-brown marks on some of the vegetables and the squash pieces are beginning to turn less opaque-white in flesh, add the sauce ingredients and stir immediately to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or pepper as desired, and add the basil leaves. Remove from heat and turn onto a bowled serving dish. Serve immediately with rice (or as part of a multi-dish family meal).

Cost Calculator
(for 2 side servings)

4 small heirloom summer squashes (at $3/lb): $3.00
1/2 onion: $0.30
2 cloves garlic: $0.10
2 small chilies (from plant): $0.20
1 lime: $0.30
10-12 basil leaves (from plant): $0.35
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce: $0.25
1 tablespoon brown sugar: $0.10
1 teaspoon soy sauce: $0.10
salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil: $0.20

Total: $4.90

Health Factor

Two brownie points: Zucchini and summer squashes have a very well-rounded nutritional profile. They’re a good source of fiber, iron, and protein, as well as a host of vitamins and phytonutrients, especially when you leave their skins on. They’re not going to fill you up too much in a scant portion, which is why I usually eat a great pile in one sitting. (They’re low in calories, and relatively inexpensive to boot.) The fresh lime juice here adds extra Vitamin C, and the small portion of fermented sauces (fish and soy) add flavor with minimal use of extra salt. Fresh basil leaves, showered copiously to finish, also adds Vitamin K.

Green Factor

Seven brownie points: Have you noticed the same seasonings coming up in blog posts? That’s because I have chili peppers, basil and other herbs growing here, and I’m not sick of them yet. Along with some fresh, local garlic cloves, you can go a long way with just about any ingredient having these on hand, and while limes, soy sauce and fish sauce are exotic imports, the main ingredient here — summer squash — was not only local, but an heirloom species kept alive by thoughtful small farms, for biodiversity as well as great flavor.

8 Responses

  1. Winona

    I just scored a few delightfully warted, crooked summer squash from my parents’ garden and was looking for a suitable recipe. I love your blog! Thanks for the inspiration. I’ll be making this tomorrow night.

  2. Pearl

    Sounds like a good idea. been thinking what to do with zucchini…

  3. Ross

    Amazing. Made this and added some chicken to make a complete stir fry. It’s perfect. Going to use this method with everything. Thank you.

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    Great web site you’ve got here.. It’s difficult to
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  5. George Oliver

    The photo says a “few drops of fish sauce” but the recipe says a tablespoon. I used the latter amount and found it an unpleasant amount, although fish sauce lovers might be happy with it. I’d suggest starting with a few drops and adding more to taste.

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