The summer between high school and college, I nannied for our neighbor’s family up in the mountains of North Carolina.
Bartlett, the mama of the family, loves to entertain, so while my primary job was supposed to be nannying her two girls, sometimes I wound up so entrenched in cooking with Bartlett that she would hire a babysitter so we could do our thing in the kitchen. (And when there were “dinner dances” at the club? Bartlett would insist that I attend as their guest, again—and hire a babysitter to stay with the girls. It was the most fun summer “job” you can possibly imagine.)
One of our go-to recipes was squash casserole, a classic casserole beloved all over the Southeast. It can be made a few different ways, but its main ingredients are squash, onions, and lots and lots of cheese.
To make ours, we’d boil pounds and pounds and pounds of yellow summer squash and sweet Vidalia onions, drain them, and then mix them with an ungodly amount of cheese and a couple of eggs to bind the mixture into a casserole. Then, we’d pour the cheesy squash mixture into a huge baking dish (or two, or three … we very often made it in bulk), top with more cheese and buttery crushed Ritz crackers, and bake until bubbly and perfectly golden-brown.
When I started thinking about creating a new summery one-pot pasta recipe, I remembered that our squash casserole didn’t involve any sautéing or browning, just boiling. I knew I had to combine the two.
Breaking It Down
To make this squash casserole in one-pot pasta form, I simply throw dried pasta, sliced yellow squash and onions, seasonings, and chicken broth all together in one pot on the stovetop. As it cooks, the squash, onions, and pasta soak up the broth and become tender all at the same time.
And then—add copious amounts of cheese! I use three types of cheese here—cheddar, parmesan, and pecorino Romano—for a perfect trifecta of creamy, salty, funky flavor. The cheeses melt into the remaining pasta cooking water, which has become starchy from cooking the pasta, helping to make a thick, creamy sauce. This pasta has just a fraction as much cheese as a traditional squash casserole does, but still, it could definitely be alternatively called “summer squash mac and cheese.”
I thought about sprinkling Ritz crackers over the top and baking it into a more casserole-y dish, but then I thought—no way. It’s still summertime—I don’t care if it’s September, we still technically have weeks of glorious summertime left to enjoy. No need to turn on the oven. And it’s delicious just as it is, so why make things more complicated? (That said, if you wanted to make this ahead of time, the oven is your friend—see recipe notes below for instructions.)
We love this pasta on its own for a pasta night, but occasionally, George will fire up our new smoker and smoke some chicken thighs to go along with it. Grilled shrimp would also be a great protein accompaniment. However you make your meal, you really can’t go wrong with cheesy squash pasta.
Southern Squash Casserole Pasta
Serves 4 to 6
- 2 pounds yellow summer squash (about 3 medium to large squash), quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 1 pound dried orecchiette pasta
- 1 medium Vidalia (or yellow) onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper (or regular black pepper)
- 1 quart (4 cups) low-sodium chicken stock
- 1/4 cup water
- 8 ounces (2 cups) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 ounces (1/2 cup) grated parmesan cheese (the powdery kind, not the shredded)
- 2 ounces (1/2 cup) grated pecorino Romano
- 1 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
- Freshly ground lemon pepper (or regular black pepper)
Add sliced squash, pasta, sliced onion, thinly sliced garlic cloves, kosher salt, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and lemon pepper to a large pot.
Pour chicken stock and 1/4 cup water into the pot. Bring to a boil. Stir frequently (the pasta will try to stick to the bottom of the pot, just keep stirring!) until the pasta is tender and the liquid has nearly evaporated, 9 to 11 minutes. You want a little less than 1/4 cup of liquid left, to create the sauce—it will be impossible to actually measure 1/4 cup, but just eyeball it. The mixture should look a bit saucy, but there shouldn’t be a ton of loose liquid.
If the liquid completely evaporates before the pasta is tender, add another splash of water. If the pasta is tender and there’s still way too much liquid, spoon some out. This can happen based on your stove calibration and the width of your pot, no big deal! Easy to solve.
Remove the pot from the heat and stir in shredded sharp cheddar cheese, grated parmesan cheese, and pecorino Romano, until the cheese is completely melted and has created a smooth sauce.
Taste. You might need more salt—it totally depends on how salty your choices of chicken stock, parmesan, and pecorino Romano were.
Stir in 1 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves. I like to garnish with lots of freshly ground black pepper.
Want to make this ahead of time? Cook the pasta as written in the recipe, then let it cool completely. If your pot isn’t ovenproof, transfer the pasta to a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the top with crushed Ritz crackers and more shredded cheddar, cover with foil, and refrigerate until you’re ready to eat. When you are, bake at 375 degrees F for 15 minutes or so, then remove the foil and finish baking for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Yellow summer squash: Zucchini, or even a winter squash, such as acorn or butternut, chopped into 1/4-inch cubes.
Orecchiette pasta: Any kind of dried pasta, as long as it takes at least 10 minutes to cook (the squash needs that long).
Vidalia onion: Yellow onion, 3 shallots, 1 bunch thinly sliced scallions, or 1 teaspoon onion powder.
Garlic cloves: Double the amount of garlic powder in the recipe (1 1/2 teaspoons total).
Garlic powder: Onion powder.
Red pepper flakes: If you love heat, add a minced serrano or jalapeño pepper! Bartlett and I used to occasionally add a jalapeño to our casseroles.
Parmesan: More cheddar, or 1 full cup pecorino Romano. Or manchego or gouda! We just want a variety of cheeses.
Pecorino Romano: More cheddar, of 1 full cup parmesan. Or see above.
Basil: Basil really helps round this dish out, but you could also use 1 cup fresh parsley or 1/4 cup fresh oregano instead.
Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer, and author of “Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds.” She currently lives in Carmel Valley, Calif., with her husband, George, and son, Mattis. Follow her on Instagram for cooking tips and snippets from her life in Northern California. @carochambers