Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pattypan Parmesan

(L) Pattypan squash. (R) Pattypan Parmesan. © Ryan Schierling
Pretty and petite, pattypan squash is a rare gem to find in the grocery store – which is a tragic testament to the SKU-driven times we live in. Not only are they adorable, with their flying-saucer shape and scalloped edges, they are mild and delicious to eat.

As a kid, we had these pale green lovelies in our big garden every year along with the yellow crookneck and zucchini. While squash wasn't my favorite vegetable, the pattypan was my first choice whenever squash was served plain. They can be enjoyed small (bite-sized is what you might find in stores) or as big as six inches in diameter, depending upon how you plan to prepare them. Pattypan squash also comes in varieties ranging from yellow and dark green to white, but it's the pale green ones that bring back the memories of searching for them, so-well camouflaged under the big green leaves.

It was a visit to an Austin farmer's market to that reignited my passion for pattypans. A few years ago in bee-line route to get a dozen fresh "yard eggs" before they were sold out, I passed a vendor with a bounty of pattypan and had to stop. This is why everyone should go to the farmer's market on occasion – such delightful finds! 

Now I start looking for pattypan squash every year around the month of May, at least here in Central Texas when the season for this particular summer squash begins. This recipe came out of that first farmer's market visit when I bought a lot of squash and had to suddenly invent some new ways to use it. This dish goes together a bit like a lasagna, savory and satisfying without being heavy with cheese or starchy. Plus there's the little extra protein and richness from the nuts. I've tried variations on this recipe – with zucchini, with eggplant, with lots more cheese (even with fresh mozzarella), with French bread instead of sourdough, without the chicken bouillon, and without spinach – but this version remains our favorite. No doubt it would be great with pine nuts instead of walnuts, but walnuts are much more affordable for a preparation such as this, and we like the flavor they impart.

With the roasting and assembly steps, it's not quite a thirty-minute meal, but it comes together pretty quickly if you've made the sauce ahead of time. The reason I suggest this is that a good sauce can take an hour or two of time for simmering and flavor development, which is something you don't want to be tempted to rush because you're hungry. In fact, I think the first time I made pattypan Parmesan we already had this sauce in the fridge looking for a way to be used. It's a simple tomato sauce that is fairly thick, and it depends heartily upon the quality of the tomatoes (a high-quality brand of Italian tomatoes is recommended) to give the sauce great flavor. 

Like any good casserole-style entree, it's a bit of a hot mess; but it makes good on what it borrows conceptually from the likes of lasagna and eggplant Parmesan. 

Pattypan Parmesan

SAUCE (Make ahead if possible.)

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with no added salt (Cento or similar)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
1/2 - 1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt to taste


4 pounds fresh patty-pan squash (4 med-large), sliced 1/4-inch thick
Kosher salt
1/2 cup chicken broth concentrate (1+ teaspoon chicken Better than Bouillon in 1/2 cup water, for concentration)


3/4 cup white onion (1/2 of good sized onion), large 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon butter

2-3 cups (a large handful) of fresh spinach, 3/8-inch chiffonade
2/3 cup shredded cheese (mozzarella/provolone/Italian mix/etc)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly-grated with microplane grater/zester


3/4 cup walnuts, finely ground in food processor
1-1/2 cups soft sourdough breadcrumbs (approx. 5 slices)
1 teaspoon olive oil (and/or melted butter)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly-grated with microplane grater/zester

Prepare the sauce by sautéing the onion and garlic in a little bit of olive oil. Stir in the herbs, then add the crushed tomatoes. Bring to simmer for about 20 minutes. Add sugar. Add salt a pinch at a time until it tastes fabulous. Allow to simmer another half hour or so, until the flavor develops. Adjust salt and sugar to taste.  (Sauce may be prepared ahead of time.)

Slice squash 1/4-inch thick. (It works best tip the squash up and slice on the diagonal to maximize the size of each slice.) Put the chicken broth in a shallow bowl and briefly soak/coat the squash slices thoroughly in the broth a handful at a time. Pat coated slices lightly with a paper towel to remove excess moisture and place on a foil lined sheet pan to be roasted in the oven. (Save remaining broth!) Roast in oven at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until fork tender.

In a saucepan, toss spinach with a very light drizzle of olive oil and a smidge of salt. Stir for about a minute on high heat until bright in color and nicely wilted. Remove from heat and put into a separate bowl – set aside.

In the same saucepan, add the diced onions and the remaining chicken broth. Cook on high heat to reduce the water out of the broth as quickly as possible. Stir frequently. You are not trying to cook the onions as much as you are reduce the water out of the pan. Add fresh ground black pepper and a small pat of butter toward the very end. Onions should be soft and translucent, but not mushy. Remove from heat and set aside.

To prepare the breadcrumbs, roughly cut sourdough slices and pulse in a food processor until you get a nice mix of fine and rough bread crumbs. Pour back onto baking sheet. Add finely-ground walnuts and a few big pinches of grated Parmesan cheese. Mix all together with your fingers and spread out on pan. Pour a light drizzle of olive oil over the crumbs – mix and spread again. Put in oven again for just a few minutes to dry/toast lightly.

Assemble, as follows, in your prettiest 1-1/2 to 2 quart baking dish:

Almost half the marinara sauce (a good 3/8-inch layer)
Layer of roasted squash (overlap the squash like fallen dominos as you lay them down)
Half of the onions

Half of the shredded cheese (mozzarella/provolone/Italian mix/etc.)
1 tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese
Approximately 1/2 cup of bread crumb mixture
Other half of the marinara sauce (spread with back of spoon)
Layer of roasted squash
Other half of the onions

Half of the shredded cheese
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
Even scattering of the spinach
1 cup of bread crumb mixture
Top with a light dusting of Parmesan

Bake at 350 degrees until sauce bubbles around edges.

Serve with buttered sourdough bread.

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