08/06/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Cooking Off the Cuff: Compartmentalizing a Stuffed Summer Squash

You know those chocolate bars with multiple "creamy" fillings, each in its own little break-off compartment? I thought of these as I contemplated a giant summer squash (I can't bring myself to call these things zucchini or zucchine, with their diminutive suffixes). Jackie and I had adopted this 8- or 9-inch beauty from the fabulous garden of our friends Alberto and Jerry, way out in the untamed hills of Pennsylvania. (It was actually the runt of the litter, but its more robust siblings probably wouldn't have fit into the car.)

The plan was to stuff it and bake it, but it seemed to me that simply hollowing it out and filling it with a mass of stuffing would create an unwieldy mound that would collapse when cut into portions. That's when I thought of the chocolate bar: When excavating the squash, I could leave a partition dividing the trench in two. (Or three, or more -- and could in fact have filled each section with a different stuffing, an idea I'll save for a dinner party some time.)

Before tackling the squash and its stuffing, I made a quick tomato sauce to serve alongside. And when I say quick I mean record-breaking: I halved maybe a cup of (blanched and peeled) grape tomatoes, put them into a saucepan with two teaspoons (10 g) of butter, half a large clove of garlic (peeled), a few leaves of fresh tarragon and a sprinkle of salt. I set the pan over highish heat, stirring constantly, and 45 seconds -- forty-five seconds! -- later, the tomatoes had broken down enough for the juice and some of the pulp to form an emulsion with the butter, and the whole was redolent of garlic and tarragon. A 45-second sauce, which I set aside, covered (I'd remove the garlic and tarragon leaves at serving time).

For the stuffing, I diced and washed a medium leek (also from our friends' garden) and sweated it in butter with the other half of that garlic clove and a small, not very hot jalapeño pepper, both minced, and some more tarragon. I cut a thin slice off the squash to form a flat base on which it would rest while cooking, then removed a deeper slice from what was now the top. With a paring knife I marked out the walls of the compartments -- a generous quarter-inch (7 or 8 mm) thick -- then used the knife and, mostly, a soup spoon to remove the flesh, leaving a nice two-segment shell for stuffing. I blanched the shell in boiling salted water for less than a minute, to give it a head start for baking, and seasoned it with salt and pepper.

By this time, the leek mixture was soft, and I chopped the excavated squash flesh with a large knife, added it to the leeks and cooked it over medium heat until much of its water had cooked away, leaving a mixture that was moist but not wet and tender but not mushy. When it had cooled for a couple of minutes I added it to a bowl already containing 2/3 cup (160 ml by volume) previously cooked long-grain rice, a similar amount of juicy corn kernels (uncooked) and a little handful of grated cheese. I used Paulet from Consider Bardwell Farm; if I hadn't had any, I'd have used something like Gruyère. I tasted the mixture for seasoning and tarragon -- it needed pepper and more tarragon -- then piled it into the squash (by hand), forming two hillocks of stuffing, one in each cubicle. I topped each mound with a modest quantity of the same grated cheese, and placed the stuffed squash into an oven dish with a little liquid (chicken stock, but white wine or water would have been fine too) and a couple of teaspoons of butter.

I baked it for 40 minutes in an oven heated to a little over 360 degrees F (185 C); by that time, the stuffing was hot, the cheese browned and the squash shell cooked but not flabby. As the liquid in the dish evaporated, I added spoonsful of water. Basting was unnecessary: everything is moist enough.

To serve, I cut at the dividing point and, sure enough, each half held together perfectly. I spooned pan juices over and, once the plates were loaded, I warmed the tomato sauce, removed the garlic clove and tarragon leaves and added half to each portion.

You'll have noticed that there is a sweetness to this whole dish: The squash is gently sweet and so are most of the stuffing ingredients. That's what dictated the tarragon, which seems ideal with these flavors. Basil would have been good too, or parsley, but you wouldn't be breaking any rules by using a more "savory" herb like sage or thyme.

Despite its vastness, the monster squash and its Everest of stuffing made for a light meal, even supplemented with good crusty bread: According to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, these vegetables are 95 percent water. Satisfying, though -- plus, we had room for dessert!

Compartmentalizing a Stuffed Summer Squash