I took a wrong exit on my way to the Birmingham Airport. I don’t usually mind getting lost because this can often lead to discovery. But after meandering endlessly down tree-lined country roads I realized that my journey, while beautiful, needed to have a focus or I would miss my flight back to New York. I pulled into the first parking lot I saw. It was for a restaurant—Joel’s Restaurant of Trussville, Alabama. The lot was packed with cars, which is always a good sign. But that’s not why I decided to stay and eat lunch. Nope, I decided to sit a spell because they had on the buffet squash casserole. And I adore squash casserole.
I’ve always thought it strange that I love squash casserole so much considering how little I enjoy eating squash any other way. Steamed, grilled, sautéed—no matter how it’s prepared I often pick at it and push it to the side of a plate. I’m just not a fan of its soft texture and abundance of flat, slimy seeds. But serve me squash in a casserole and I’ll eat seconds or even thirds.
OK, perhaps it’s not that odd that I love squash casserole since it’s a creamy, crunchy mass that’s closer to the fattening family than the vegetable family. But this doesn’t make it even less delicious. And I always rationalize eating it by telling myself that certainly some of the squash’s vitamins would have leached into the swirls of dairy that hold the squash in suspension.
This squash casserole on offer at Joel’s that day was the same kind that my mom and my grandma make: yellow summer squash cut into rounds, baked with a mix of cream of mushroom soup, cream of chicken soup and a package of corn bread stuffing. Yes, it qualifies as semi-homemade but it sure is good. That said, when I picked up a few pounds of yellow squash and zucchini at the farmers market recently, I didn’t have any of these squash casserole ingredients on hand. So I knew if this squash was going to be eaten I’d just have to improvise.
I made my first batch of squash casserole, thinking that it was going to be swell and I was going to be able to tell the world, “You don’t need cream of mushroom soup!” But what I made wasn’t all that good. I then made two more pans and had a casserole bake off—me vs. the mushroom soup. A fine idea in practice, yes, but not necessarily execution when it’s hot and humid both inside and out.
I was about ready to admit defeat when I hit on the bright idea to adapt my King Ranch recipe into a squash casserole. And, it worked! At last I had a squash casserole that could rub shoulders with my mom’s squash casserole.
Does mine taste the same? No, it’s different but no less equal. So now we’ll just have to make room on the table for two squash casseroles, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 yellow squash and 2 zucchini, cut into coins (4 cups)
1 medium onion, diced
1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 can of Ro-Tel tomatoes, drained or two cups of diced fresh tomatoes with 1/4 cup of diced green chiles, such as a jalapeno
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup (4 ounces) grated pepper jack cheese
1 cup (4 oucnes) grated cheddar cheese
2 cups crushed tortilla chips
Preheat the oven to 350° F and lightly grease 9×13 casserole dish.
Heat the butter in a large skillet on medium heat. When melted, add the squash, onion, and jalapeño, and sauté until the onions are translucent and the squash is soft, about 10 minutes.
Add the garlic, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, salt, pepper and cook for a minute. Then stir in the flour and cook until a light-brown past forms, another minute.
Now add the broth and tomatoes and stir until the mixture thickens, which should happen in a couple of minutes. Add the half and half, sour cream, and cilantro and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings.
In the greased casserole dish, layer the bottom with the crushed tortilla chips. Pour on top of the chips the creamy squash mixture and then cover the whole dish with the grated cheese.
Cook uncovered for 30 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbling.
6 to 8 servings