Southern Comfort Food: Pimento and Cheese Squash Casserole

readytoeatHere’s a dish I think you’ll really love as much as we do and it’s a staple of the Southern food culture. A squash casserole full of fresh yellow squash and onions, enhanced with the flavors of homemade pimento cheese…what’s not to love?

I’ve been making squash casserole for years. My version has always included squash, onion, bell pepper, an egg, a knob of butter, extra sharp cheddar cheese and breadcrumbs on top sprinkled with sweet or smoky paprika. My only variations have been in changing the color of my peppers and varieties of cheese. Delicious, and not the stereotypical southern casserole that involves cream soup, sour cream or mayonnaise, which suits me just fine.

However. Sometimes a little decadence can go a long way and change can be good. Really good, in this case.

Pimento cheese seems to have enjoyed a renaissance lately. My mom makes the very best pimento cheese in the world and perhaps I will share that recipe at a later date. It was she who first mentioned adding pimentos to her squash casserole and that gave me the idea to do my own version with a “pimento cheese” spin. When I tasted it, it was transformative! Who knew that those little pimentos could make such a difference in the flavor of this casserole?

Although to be fair, the mayonnaise is really the game changing element from a textural point of view. I use mayonnaise regularly in some things as needed, but generally use a very light hand with it. In this case, the mayonnaise makes this casserole so wonderfully flavorful and comforting, while complimenting the taste of the squash and other ingredients. It adds just the perfect amount of creaminess to the dish without being sloppy or gooey. It’s so good and easy to prepare, you might be tempted to make a meal off of the casserole alone, but it’s even better as an accompaniment to your favorite entree.

I chose squash that was seasonally available to make this casserole, and in this case it was a yellow summer squash with a pale green end. The result was this beautiful “confetti casserole” appearance. Any yellow summer squash will work just as well and taste great.

Pimento and Cheese Squash Casserole
Serves 6

1 lb. of yellow summer squash, crookneck or other, trimmed and sliced into 1/4″ slices
1-4 oz. jar of chopped pimentos, drained
1/2 sweet red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/3 cup good quality mayonnaise
1 1/2 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper freshly ground

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray or just coat it lightly with olive oil.

Place the sliced squash into a medium sized pot, cover it with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to simmer and partially cover the pot with a lid. Allow the squash to cook until it is just tender when pricked with a fork, about 15 minutes. Drain off all of the water, leaving the squash in the pot. Mash the squash with a potato masher until it is well broken up, but not pulverized. Place the pot lid back over the top of the pot and drain the water one more time. Add the butter to the hot squash and stir until it melts. Add the pimentos and red onion and stir. Add the egg and stir well. Then add the mayonnaise, 3/4 cup of the cheddar cheese, the salt and pepper and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish and top with the remaining cheese.

Place the casserole into the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, or until the casserole is set and bubbling and the top is very lightly browned. Remove from the oven and allow it to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

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What am I cooking up next? A breakfast bread of champions. Stay tuned and Happy Fall…

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It’s the Simple Things

Happy September! Welcome to blue sky days and the winding down of the summer season. Although our summer is still making its presence known, we had a tease of fall a couple of nights ago that promised a welcome cooling off not too far down the road.

I’ve overused the word “busy” lately, because that’s what this year has been. Busy with work, busy with family, busy with life. And it’s all a very good thing. The only bad thing about it is that my blog has suffered a bit, as has my inventiveness in the kitchen. I beat myself up about that a little…thinking that I should only post when I have something excitingly new and different to share. Am I right or am I procrastinating? I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that as time goes on and the busier I get, I find it’s the simplest things in life that get you by and prove to be the most enjoyable. Like taking a ten minute break or walk during the week to clear your head, or a lovely longer hike in a forest over the weekend. An evening sitting out on the deck enjoying an unexpected cool breeze and the night sounds. An unplanned road trip for a day just for a change of venue. An ice cream on a sugar cone. A spontaneous run through someone else’s sprinkler on a hot day! Moments.

Enjoying the simpler things also applies to food. Of late we’ve been enjoying the simplest of dishes comprised of the summer season’s bounty. Bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches both traditional with plain bread and mayo…and with some twists, fresh field peas, green beans from the garden roasted or snapped, a squash casserole, or with a bit more effort a squash and tomato galette, watermelon salad, grilled corn salad, lemon, strawberry, blueberry, or peach sorbets or pops…simple, delightful.

So today what I’m sharing is just that. Some simple, easy foods to enjoy before the season is over and we move into fall. Some of the recipes above I’ve posted before and you’ll see those highlighted and can follow the links to their posts. Some of the new recipes below aren’t really recipes so much as a method. Most all of them are quick to make and leave you with some time to sit and enjoy their simply wonderful flavor. I highly recommend dining alfresco if you have the opportunity!

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Some seriously good eats. Field peas, charred broccoli with lemon and goat cheese and Cooking Light’s carrot and potato pancakes with curried yogurt dipping sauce. A Vegetarian’s delight!

Our Classic Family preparation for field peas or snapped green beans:
4-6 side servings

3/4 lb. shelled, rinsed and drained field peas such as black-eyed, pink-eyed, purple hull or lady peas
— OR —
3/4 lb. snapped green beans, rinsed and drained
2 oz. good quality raw bacon strips
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
1 measured teaspoon granulated sugar

Place the peas or the green beans in a medium-sized saucepan. Cover with water by 1 inch. Add the bacon, salt, pepper and sugar and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat down and cook until just tender to the bite, about 15 to 20 minutes. Scoop out with slotted spoon and enjoy.

If you only try one of these recipes, don't miss this corn salad!

If you only try one of these recipes, make it this corn salad!

Grilled Corn Salad
(Slightly adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine) My new favorite!
Serves 4

5 ears of fresh corn, husk and silk removed
3 1/2 tablespoons of good quality mayonnaise (I use Duke’s)
2 generous tablespoons of fresh lime juice
1/8 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1/8 scant teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 1/2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh cilantro
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare a grill or grill pan for medium heat. Grill the corn, turning it occasionally until tender and charred, about 10-12 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Using a chef’s knife, hold the cob upright over a cutting board and cut the kernels off the cob cutting downward. Transfer the cut corn kernels to a medium bowl.

In another medium bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, lime juice, paprika, cayenne, feta and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Combine the corn with the dressing mixture and toss to thoroughly coat. Cover the salad with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 15-30 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Serve with additional feta and cilantro sprinkled over if desired. (Dressing can be made 2 days ahead, covered and chilled. Corn can be grilled and cut from cob 1 hour ahead and stored airtight at room temperature.)

Watermelon and Feta Salad with Mint or Baby Arugula (Rocket)
Serves 4-6
(This salad is best made shortly before you plan to eat it. The watermelon will release its juice the moment the salt hits it.)

1/2 of a small seedless watermelon, fruit cut from rind and into 1 1/2 chunks (about 8 cups)
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped OR 2 1/2 cups of baby arugula leaves
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (or more to taste)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large bowl gently combine the watermelon, mint or arugula, a generous pinch of salt and several good grinds of black pepper to taste. Add the feta cheese and gently toss to combine. Taste again and add more salt, pepper and feta if desired. Serve within an hour, ideally, to keep the watermelon from becoming too soupy.

BLT Pizza
You’ll have to decide for yourself how many this will serve depending on your level of hunger…at least 2 folks. Prepared crust gets this on the table in 15 minutes from the time your bacon is cooked.

1 Prepared 12-inch pizza crust
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 medium fresh tomatoes such as heirloom Cherokee purple or other favorite, sliced fairly thin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons of slivered or chopped fresh basil leaves (about 10-12 leaves)
4 ounces fresh buffalo mozzarella sliced, then cut into 1 inch pieces
3 cups baby arugula leaves
good quality extra virgin olive oil

Pizza stone and a peel, ideally
corn meal if using a peel to help release the pizza

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F with a pizza stone placed in the middle rack of the oven. If you do not have a pizza stone, place your crust on a flat baking sheet instead of a pizza peel and proceed to top it as below.

Place a good pinch of corn meal on your pizza peel if using one, then place the prepared pizza crust on top of that (or a baking sheet if not using a stone.) Drizzle about 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil over the pizza crust and use your clean hands to rub it all over the surface and edges of the crust.

Place the tomato slices evenly across the crust leaving a scant 1/2 inch border along the outside, trying not to overlap but covering the surface area of the crust very well. Sprinkle the black pepper over the tomato slices and then evenly distribute the basil over the tomato slices. Place the mozzarella on top of the tomatoes and basil, again evenly distributing. Using the peel, place the pizza into the oven on top of the stone, centered, or place your baking sheet directly into the oven. Bake the pizza for 10-12 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly, and the edges of the crust are nicely browned. Use your peel to remove the pizza from the stone and place it on a large cutting board, or slide your pizza off the baking sheet onto a cutting board. Top the hot pizza evenly with the crumbled cooked bacon, then the arugula. Finish the pizza with a tiny drizzle (about 1 teaspoon) of olive oil on top of the arugula. Cut into six wedges and serve.

BLT Pizza is a one dish meal!

BLT Pizza is a one dish meal!

 

Squashed.

So, if you read my CSA post from last week, you’ll remember I had squash in the box (sounds like a band name), and last night I squashed it into a casserole.

Squashed squash with onions and peppers.

When I was little I was like a lot of kids…I wouldn’t eat squash. It smelled bad, it looked funny and yuck! It was a VEGETABLE! My mom kept working on me though, and eventually came up with a recipe for a squash casserole featuring lots of cheese, and I started thinking: “hey, this squash stuff isn’t too bad.”

Nowadays it’s one of my favorite vegetables, and I so look forward to the fresh squashes that come with summer because they can and do provide some mighty fine eating. In addition to the ubiquitous yellow squashes and zucchini, some of the great heirloom varieties of summer squashes like Pattypan are now readily available, too. Continue reading