Squashing Hopes and Dreams
September 2, 2007

What I love most about being an amateur cook are the discoveries. They are discoveries that would cause most professional chefs to look at me, raise an eyebrow, and say, "Um? Duh!" but I don't care. When I hit upon a new eatpiphony, it's not an "A-ha!" moment, it's an "Ohhhhhh!" sort of feeling that washes over and leaves me all glowy. (And usually quite full.)

I had an eatpiphony this week, and it happened along with another toppling of one of my gross-out vegetables. Let's see, we've tackled Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, okra (thanks to the redoubable Catherine), and now summer squash. I've come to the realization that being a picky eater isn't about hating food, it's about hating the recipe. When armed with a good recipe, practically anything can be rendered delicious.

Backing way up to a few years ago when I was testing recipes for a friend, I saw the addition of sugar in a tomato sauce. It wasn't an ingredient I had associated with tomato sauce in the past, but after using it, I realized that's where my favorite tomato sauces get their roundness and depth of flavor. Before sugar, the tomato sauce is all acid and brightness, which is a good thing, but I had been craving the rich, the deep, and the velvety with no idea how to get it. Just a touch of sugar changed all that for me. It's the savory parallel to adding salt to a sweet application and getting smacked over the head by how much more chocolate-y chocolate tastes with salt.

With the bounty of summer tomatoes rolling out of every Bay Area kitchen this month, it seemed heretical to add sugar to the sauce. Just cook 'em up quick, serve them barely hotter than they were lying in the dirt, and dip your mouth in summer, right? Sure. But see, after saddling my two-person household with an enormous Mariquita Mystery Box ($25 gets you pounds upon pounds of amazing stuff), I had a bumper crop of summer squash and I don't really like summer squash.

Mostly, I've had it steamed -- maybe sautéed or mashed -- and I just wasn't impressed, much less in love with the patty pan sunbursts or zucchini-like green ones. However, part of my haul from Alemany Farm was a bunch of slightly imperfect, but heartily ripe tomatoes, and I had already decided to make yet another pasta sauce. But there were these squashes. Squashes sitting in a bowl. Squashes staring me down. Squashes getting squashier by the day. To rid myself of their meddlesome gaze, I slid them under my knife, and diced them up small. Into my saucier they went with olive oil, garlic, and one monster of a Mariquita torpedo onion. The diced Alemany tomatoes soon followed, and the summer sauce simmered and spit until the tomatoes started to break down.

As I swished in some salt, pepper, and minced fresh Alemany basil for the grand finish, I realized that the sauce had thickened to a pearly lustre. Usually until I shove my immersion blender in, my summer tomato sauces are fairly loose, no matter how much I reduce them, but this sauce showed every sign of having a clingy personality. Tossed with fettuccine, the pasta sauce -- dotted with delicate green and yellow cubes of squash -- had a soft and fat sweetness, which, having been invited in by the summer squash, didn't need to be faked with sugar.

The whole mess was topped with blistered bacon* and enjoyed in the heat of a 55° San Francisco summer evening.

Summer Squash Sauce

3 strips thick-cut bacon, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
1 1/2 cups summer squash, diced
3 1/2 cups tomatoes, roughly chopped
Pinch of hot pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh basil, minced
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 lb cooked fettuccine

Serves 4

1. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add the bacon and fry until crispy and so fragrant you can't help snatching a mouth-searing taste. Drain the bacon on paper towels and wipe out the saucepan. Warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.

2. Add the onions, garlic, and squash and sauté until slightly softened, about 3-5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes and hot pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and lower the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the sauce reduces slightly and thickens. (The tomatoes should be pretty broken down.)

2. Take the sauce off the heat, stir in the basil, salt, and pepper and taste. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Toss with hot, drained pasta, top with the bacon crisps, and serve.

(*After a kareoke birthday party at Sam's, we found ourselves pressed into taking home two pounds of Fatted Calf bacon. It's been in the freezer since June, and every so often, we peel off some slices and indulge in a passionate porcine affair. Tell me this isn't the food equivalent of Skinemax: "dry rubbed with brown sugar and smoked over apple wood." Just how wet is your mouth right now?)

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