Every year, we celebrate Mommaw’s birthday with a trip to her favorite catfish joint. It’s an after-church place, where you wait in a wood-paneled holding area with other families, random toddlers and the busload of people from the senior center for your turn to walk under the plywood-mounted catfish above the dining room entrance and claim elbow space at one of the oil cloth-covered tables. There, the catfish is good, but it’s the mountain of fish-fry sides – white beans with relish, fresh coleslaw, fried corn, baked potatoes and hush puppies – that reels everyone in.

I’d like to say that I eat a healthy salad and some steamed vegetables with this meal, but those things would only take up room in my stomach that is rightfully reserved for those hush puppies. They own me.

People who think they’re “just” deep-fried balls of cornbread have never had good cornbread. They’re so good that most cooks don’t try to mess with perfection. They keep the recipe simple, with maybe just a little diced onion for extra flavor. So, when I opened “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen” and saw that she had added squash to her hush puppies, I knew I had to try them.

The squash in these Squash Puppies is chopped so finely that it melts into the rest of the batter, giving you balls of cornbread that are as crispy and golden brown as any I’ve ever had. The squash adds the slightest hint of sweetness, not enough to alarm a picky eater, but you’ll know it’s there. It also seems to help the batter form a tighter crumb, so the hush puppies are a little more tender inside but perfectly capable of sopping up ketchup, tartar sauce and Foster’s suggested accompaniment: her Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise.

This mayonnaise is hot enough to get your attention and keep it, but the spice doesn’t mask the brightness of the cilantro, scallion, lime juice and basil. It’s a concoction that begs for others things to put it on. Burgers. Grilled chicken sandwiches. BLTs. The end of your finger. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t just the thing for these squash puppies. The bite of the jalapeño mayonnaise perfectly balances the sweetness of the squash. They’re so well-matched, you might wonder where these things have been your whole life.

It’s a fish-fry side that might be worth skipping the fish.

Squash Puppies

Adapted from “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen”

Makes about 36

  • 2 cups self-rising yellow cornmeal
  • 3/4 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 medium yellow squash (about 1 pound), minced
  • 3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 tablespoons grated onion
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, cored, seeded and minced
  • Canola oil, for deep-frying
  • 1 cup Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise, for dipping
  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a brown paper bag.
  2. Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt and pepper in a large bowl.
  3. In a separate bowl, stir together the squash, buttermilk, eggs, onion and jalapeño.
  4. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the cornmeal mixture, and stir just until moistened. (Overmixing will make the hush puppies tough.) Let the batter sit for 15 minutes, undisturbed, at room temperature.
  5. Fill a saucepan, Dutch oven or an electric skillet with canola oil 3 to 4 inches deep, and heat over medium-high heat to between 350 degrees F and 375 degrees F.
  6. Spoon the batter into the hot oil about 1 tablespoon at a time, using two spoons or a 1 tablespoon ice cream scoop. Working in batches of 6 to 8 squash puppies, fry, turning several times with a slotted spoon or frying utensil, until crispy and golden brown all over, 2 to 3 minutes.
  7. Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the squash puppies from the pan, and drain on the prepared baking sheet. Place in the oven to keep warm while cooking the remaining puppies. Serve hot with Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise for dipping.

Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise

Makes about 2 cups

  • 3 jalapeño peppers
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
  • 1 trimmed and chopped scallion
  • 2 smashed garlic cloves
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 6 fresh basil leaves
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. To Roast the Jalapeño Peppers: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place your jalapeño peppers on a rimmed baking sheet, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for about 20 minutes, until the skin is blistered and slightly brown. Remove from the oven, and set aside. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, and discard the skin, seeds and core. Set aside.
  2. Place mayonnaise in a food processor. Add roasted jalapeño peppers, cilantro, scallion, garlic, lime juice, basil, salt and pepper. Puree until smooth. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week.