Chef Abra Berens’ summer squash epiphany: Fall in love with the season's underappreciated produce

The Michigan chef thinly shaves underappreciated zucchini and dresses it with lots and lots of herbs

By Maggie Hennessy
Published June 22, 2021 6:00PM (EDT)
Summer Squash Salad (EE Berger)
Summer Squash Salad (EE Berger)

The glorious, steamy heat of summertime and its abundance of peak produce always brings with it one uneasy caveat: the waves of summer squash that will inevitably overwhelm farmers' market tables and my CSA box through Labor Day weekend. There might be no better, or more hilarious, missive on this annual edible-garden dump than in the introduction of the summer squash section of "Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables," the seminal 2019 guide to vegetable cookery by chef, author and former farmer Abra Berens.  

"Three things always come to mind when I think of zucchini," Berens wrote. "One, the old saying that summer squash season is the only time of year when residents of small towns lock their car doors, for fear of the vegetable being left on their front seat by a gardening neighbor. Two, after receiving our first big delivery of zucchini from the farmers' market at Zingerman's [the Ann Arbor deli where Berens first started cooking], my good friend (and then-boss) Rodger looking at it, saying, 'Nature's Styrofoam,' and walking away. Three, how when we were growing up we used those monstrously large zucchini as bats in [rotten] tomato baseball."

When I recently caught up with Berens on the phone as she drove down a country road near Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Mich., where she is now the chef, she reflected on the conundrum that almost everyone grows summer squash yet doesn't seem to love it.

"I don't know that there's a raw food ingredient that doesn't deserve its fanfare," Berens said. "And I do think squash plays a really nice role on a summer plate. Plus, if you just had corn and tomatoes all day long, that sort of consolidation is not good in our society or pantry."

Berens dutifully spent an entire chapter dispensing advice on how to store and prepare everything from tender baby squashes to those tougher-skinned, mature zucchini. When I asked the longtime farmer which recipe endeared her the most to this oft-unloved summer vegetable, she shared the one that did the same for me: thinly shaving raw, young summer squash and dressing it with lots of herbs, lemon juice, parmesan and olive oil.

"This was a revelation to me as much as eating sushi for the first time," she wrote in "Ruffage." "Equally as implausible as it was delicious."

Berens' squash epiphany came while she was a young cook staring down a boatload of summer squash and an empty menu page for an underground dinner she was hosting at Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Mich., which she co-founded in 2009. As she desperately paged through the courgette section of "Tender," British food writer Nigel Slater's 2011 cookbook, for ideas, she found inspiration and unexpected reassurance from an old friend.

"[Slater] mentioned not knowing what to do with summer squash and talking with Skye Gyngell [the Australian chef of London's acclaimed Spring Restaurant and Berens's longtime mentor]," Berens recalled. "She suggested he make a raw summer squash salad. I felt like my mentor was reaching out to me through the pages. It was such a comfort." 

That night for dinner, she served raw shaved squash in a simple dressing — "an unexpected pop of brightness well suited to a summer night."

The tender squash snaps softly with a delicate crunch that gives way to a creamy middle punctuated with tiny seeds. Its — ahem — mildness, makes it an ideal canvas for the bright lemon, salty shaved cheese and a punchy mix of chopped herbs. (I particularly love this with a mixture of mint, basil, parsley and chives or tarragon, dill and thyme. But, as Berens points out, you can even use all parsley leaves if that's all you have.)  

"Adding a bunch of herbs can create a diversity of flavor around things you don't normally see and make them taste otherworldly," Berens said. "And the squash is there like, 'Don't worry, I'll dull the flavors for you!' It may not be Lin-Manuel Miranda, but it's in the chorus." 

The other benefit of the herbs? They don't change the cellular composition of the squash, unlike salt and acid, which quickly break down the cellulose in the squash, causing it to ooze liquid. This is why Berens suggests waiting until the very last minute to dress it.

OK, Abra. But what if all we can find are those big old baseball-bat zucchini with the huge seeds? Don't worry, she has a revelation for that, too. 

"That's when I'd marinate them, which is one of my absolute favorite ways to make summer squash," she said.

Specifically, Berens uses the Spanish technique known as escabeche, which involves grilling, pan-frying or roasting sliced squash, then immediately tossing it in a generous amount of vinaigrette to cool. As the cells cool, they constrict, absorbing the acidity and flavor deep into their walls. 

"This technique adds such depth of flavor, and then you can keep the squash in the fridge for a few days because it's essentially a gentle form of pickling." 

So the next time you're anxiously staring down a boatload of summer squash and a blank dinner menu, take a deep breath. Imagine Abra Berens reaching out through the pages of "Ruffage," gently telling you not to walk away from Nature's Styrofoam. Instead, slice it thin, dress it up and have a little revelation of your own.

***

Roasted Squash
Photograph by EE Berger

Recipe: Abra Berens' Shaved Summer Squash w/ Parmesan, Lots and Lots of Herbs, and Olive Oil

Ingredients:

  • 2 summer squash (4 cups), shaved into 1/8-in.-thick slices with a mandolin or sharp knife
  • 1 cup assorted herb leaves
  • 4 ounces Parmesan, peeled into ribbons
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • 1/3 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oi

Directions:

Toss together the squash, herbs, Parmesan, and salt and pepper with 1/4 cup of the olive oil.

Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more olive oil as needed to make it well dressed and flavorful.

Serve within 30 minutes. If serving later, shave the zucchini in advance but dress just before serving. 

Recipe excerpted from Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables by Abra Berens, published by Chronicle Books (2019).

 

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Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist and chef. A former restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago, Hennessy's work has also appeared in such publications as Eater and Food52.

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