My friend Nancy Peterkin’s squash casserole has made the rounds! Nancy, a justifiably renowned Houston hostess and a cook of uncommon talents, gave my mother the recipe years ago and since then, I’ve published it in the food column I used to write for the New York Times Magazine and two cookbooks, including Julia Reed’s South. I’ve also tinkered with it over the years and served it at more parties than I can count. The shindig I’m hosting this coming Labor Day Weekend is no exception.
Like most Southerners I grew up eating countless iterations of squash casserole and I have at least half a dozen recipes in my own repertoire. But Nancy’s, as I said in the Times way back in 2002, is the best one “on the planet earth.” Sam Sifton, who has since become the Times food editor, agrees with me. I really, really love Sam, and not just because he is forever writing nice things about me and my recipes. He’s one of the best writers out there and his Cooking site brightens up my morning each time it lands in my inbox. If you don’t subscribe, you should do so immediately. But first, more about that squash. In one blog a few years ago, Sam declared it his favorite too. In another, he called it “transgressive,” a word I just adore and which, in this case (I think!) refers to the lavish amounts of butter, cheddar, cream, and buttery Ritz cracker crumbs that combine with the squash in what Sam calls “mysterious, marvelous ways.” Its richness is cut by a large chopped onion and two kinds of peppers that are also among the ingredients—if you like a touch of heat, you can definitely add an extra jalapeno or two. This dish can take it.
Sam likes his casserole with roasted or barbecued chicken. In Julia Reed’s South, I serve it with fried chicken, sliced tomatoes, and okra fritters. This weekend, I think I’m going with the Barbecued Pork Shoulder that’s in the same cookbook. Whatever you serve it with, I think you’ll agree with Sam and me and my friend Libby Page, a party planner who is married to the brilliant landscape architect Ben Page. Libby is a terrific cook and we have enjoyed many of these casseroles at the farm she and Ben share in Giles County, Tennessee. Paul Costello took lots of images for the book there, including the gorgeous zinnia shot in this post and another that he got up at dawn to capture. As you can see, it was well worth it.
Zinnias and squash scream summer to me and here we are at the season’s last gasp. So do make the best of it. Happy Labor Day!
Nancy Peterkin’s Summer Squash Casserole
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 pounds yellow summer squash, scrubbed, trimmed, and cut into ½-inch slices
8 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing baking pan
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 large onion, chopped
24 Ritz crackers, finely crumbed in a food processor
1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs
4 slices plain white bread, toasted
1 tablespoon butter, melted
Preheat the to 350 Fahrenheit. Butter a 2½ quart baking dish.
Place the squash slices in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times so that the squash is chopped fairly finely. You will likely have to do this in batches.
In a large, fairly deep skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and add the squash. Saute for about three or four minutes and stir in the garlic, peppers, and onion. When the vegetables are tender, about ten more minutes, remove the skillet from the heat.
Meanwhile, crumb the toasted bread (but not too finely) in the food processor. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and toss with the crumbs. (You can substitute a sleeve of Ritz crackers for the toasted crumbs—and I often do—but I especially like the contrast of the toast.)
In a large bowl, place squash mixture, Ritz cracker crumbs and cheese, and mix well. Stir in beaten eggs, cream and seasonings. Blend well and pour into buttered casserole dish. Top with buttered bread crumbs and bake for 40 minutes, until crumbs are golden brown.