Food & Drink: Get better at squash

Move over watery bloated pumpkin, the compact tasty squash in all its colourful varieties is the real flavour of the month. Michael Bateman celebrates the marrow's underrated cousin

EUROPE'S HEAVIEST pumpkin this year is probably one grown by Lazlo Kosa. It is a golden orb weighing in at a colossal 209lb, which is nearly 15 stone. Two thousand people turned up to see him crowned King of the Pumpkins a few weeks ago at the annual pumpkin festival in Nagydobos in Hungary.

Pumpkins were once a thriving export industry to the US but fashions change, and today the Hungarian pumpkin is used largely for cattle feed, if at all. In the UK, we use them for Hallowe'en masks. Not exactly a thriving industry but an amusing hobby for some market gardeners.

We have some way to go before we can equal Europe's best. I know this because I've just come back from Cobham in Surrey, where I attended an open day held by AL Tozer, the leading suppliers of pumpkin and squash seed in the country.

A hundred varieties of the Cucurbita family were on display, hard-skinned, soft-centred vegetables that embrace melons and marrow, courgettes and cucumber, decorative gourds, colourful summer and winter squash and pot- bellied orange pumpkins. But what was to have been the showpiece, a gigantic Sumo pumpkin, had barely made two stone in weight due to our bad summer, half what it was last year.

From the food point of view, this is no great loss. A pumpkin's watery pulp isn't fit to fill a Thanksgiving pie. But the denser, tastier flesh of its cousin the squash is a much under-appreciated treat. And it was its culinary potential that had attracted many of the visiting professional buyers and growers.

Supermarkets such as Sainsbury's report increasing sales of squash, the most commonly available being Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard and the New Zealand duo Kabocha and Crown Prince.

I have long been a convert to squash. The brightly coloured, dense flesh makes a colourful and textural addition to a vegetable stew or couscous. A 1lb slice, emptied of its large seeds with the tough skin chopped away, leaves about 12lb of apparently firm flesh. This is an illusion. Cooked with other vegetables, squash reduces to pulp within minutes. So you need to cook the diced squash separately in boiling water, or preferably in stock. Don't take your eyes off it for a moment. Test with a skewer and remove it with a slotted spoon the instant it becomes tender, up to four minutes.

To concentrate the flavour of a squash, it is better to bake it in a hot oven. Cut in half, place on a greased baking sheet, its cut side downwards, and cook for 30 minutes or until tender. Pierce with a skewer to check for doneness. This yields a sweet, sometimes chestnutty-flavoured pulp - squash puree in the recipes overleaf. I sieve it and use it to thicken winter soups. But it is ideal for pies and tarts, as Americans have always known.

Squashes originated in the Americas, being one of the native foods the Plymouth Brethren encountered when they first arrived. The American Indians called them isquontersquashes (according to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue), which presumably translated into succotash, a delicious vegetable stew that they introduced to the settlers - beans, sweetcorn and squash, spiced with chilli. I make the version as a thick soupy stew, using the sieved puree of a baked squash, freshly boiled sweetcorn and drained lima beans (or similar), sharpened with tomato and seasoned with paprika and chilli.

Recipes for squash, until very recently, have been hard to come by, and usually involve trawling New World cookbooks. In New Zealand they use baked squash puree as a side vegetable with no qualms. In Australia they serve a savoury soup in a baked squash as a dinner party piece.

But this autumn there is a sudden flurry of publishing activity on this front. Cool Green Leaves and Red Hot Peppers, by Christine McFadden and Michael Michaud, has a section on growing them, and some recipes. Rosemary Meon in The Pumpkin and Squash Recipe Book gives some 90 inventive recipes, and Janet Macdonald goes 10 better, her Pumpkins & Squashes containing 100, with a directory of types of squash, and tips on growing, preparing, storing and cooking with them (details and special offer below).

Armed with Janet Macdonald's book, I visited the Tozer trails in Surrey. And with its help I was able to identify eight of the tastiest squashes to carry off to try (see box, overleaf). Really good they were, too. You may wonder how we were eating watery green marrows all these years, and ignoring these beauties.

Well, their time has come. And if you can't find what you want in your supermarket, says Janet Macdonald, scour local farm shops. The range is increasing all the time. Janet, who lives in Kent, discovered their wonders barely 10 years ago, on a visit to Canada. "The friends we stayed with served a dish heaped up with mashed Buttercup squash, golden, fluffy and delicious. I'd never tasted anything like it." They gave her some seeds to bring home and she has never looked back.

"At that time, you couldn't buy seeds of anything except the large pumpkin here, let alone the fruits of this wonderful vegetable," she says. "Now you find squash in most supermarkets."

They are easy to grow too, she says, though they have a voracious thirst, each plant needing three or four gallons of water a week. They need plenty of manure, and they do love the sun. They are extremely user-friendly. Storage is no problem; transfer to a cool, dry shed and they should keep for three months (but do inspect the stems often in case rot develops).

Janet soon discovered that most of her friends wanted to emulate her but didn't know what to do with the squashes. So the idea of a book of recipes was born. Her researches uncovered gratins and stews, savoury and sweet pies, cheesecakes and even ice-creams.

The history, too, was fascinating. She found that squashes have been around for at least 10,000 years, and the hard shells used for spoons and scooping items, bowls and cages, even drums and musical instruments. France, the country that gave us the enduring tale of Cinderella, the girl who went to the ball in a golden pumpkin, proved to be the most rewarding area of research. Several times a year Janet takes off to visit French pumpkin fairs (the fun includes pip-spitting competitions). There is one scheduled for next weekend, actually, in Saint-Remy-la-Varenne (Maine- et-Loire).

Incidentally, according to Janet, Lazlo Kosa's Sumo pumpkin falls far short of the world record. This stands at a staggering 450kg or nearly 1,000lb, ie 71 stone.

Here are Janet's notes on her favourite top eight squashes, with recipes using them, from her book (unless otherwise specified).

'Pumpkins & Squashes' by Janet Macdonald, published by Grub Street (pounds 17.99) is available to IoS readers at a special price of pounds 15.99 including p&p. Call 0171 924 3966 quoting IoS.

'Cool Green Leaves & Red Hot Peppers' by Christine McFadden and Michael Michaud is published by Frances Lincoln (pounds 25).

The 'Pumpkin and Squash Cookbook' by Rosemary Moon is published by Apple (pounds 8.99).

Market gardeners who want to find out more about the varieties of pumpkin and squash seed available can write for catalogue to AL Tozer, Seed Merchants, Pyports, Downside Bridge Road, Cobham, Surrey, KT11 3EH; 01932 862 059.

ROSEMARY MOON'S BUTTERNUT AND ORANGE SOUP

Serves 4-6

1 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1-2 butternut squashes (about 900g/2lb in total), peeled and diced

grated rind and juice of 2 oranges

1.5 litres/212 pints well-flavoured vegetable stock

salt and ground black pepper

2 bayleaves

freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Cook the onion in the oil until soft, then add the squash and cook slowly for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the orange rind, then add the stock, seasoning, bay leaves and nutmeg. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 40 minutes, until the squash is tender.

Allow the soup to cool slightly, remove the bayleaves, then blend in a blender or food processor until smooth. Rinse the pan and return the soup to it, adding the orange juice. Reheat slowly - do not let the soup boil - then season. Add the parsley just before serving.

SUCCOTASH

This Native American dish is a happy marriage of three plants that are traditionally grown together - corn, beans and pumpkins. It doesn't really matter what beans you use, but white-skinned butterbeans or haricot beans will not affect the colour of the succotash.

Serves 4

250g/8oz prepared pumpkin flesh

50g/2oz butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

12 red pepper, finely chopped

100g/4oz dried beans, soaked and pre-cooked (or 1 can of lima or cannellini beans)

250g/8oz sweetcorn

250ml/8fl oz water

salt and pepper

Cut the pumpkin flesh into walnut-sized chunks. In a saucepan, melt the butter and fry the onion and pepper until the onion is translucent. Add the pumpkin and water, bring to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer, covered for 10 minutes. Season and simmer a further five minutes. Serve with freshly baked wholemeal bread.

SQUASH FRITTERS

Use Acorn or Butternut squash for these delicious fritters. The batter will keep in the fridge for up to two days.

Serves 4

2 Acorn squashes

1 tablespoon plain flour

1 egg

2-3 tablespoons creme fraiche

2 cloves garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

oil for frying

Prepare the squash flesh and grate it. Put the flour into a bowl and add the egg and creme fraiche to make a thick batter. Stir in the garlic and squash, then leave to stand for 20 minutes. Season the batter just before frying, otherwise the salt will draw water from the squash and dilute the batter. Heat a little oil in a frying pan and fry spoonfuls of the batter for three to four minutes each side.

WINTER SQUASH PIE

This succulent pie is a firm favourite in France, where it is sold at markets. Any of the dense-fleshed winter squashes, such as Buttercup, Butternut, Hubbard or Kabocha is suitable. If you can't find these, salt the flesh, leave to stand for 30 minutes to degorge before cooking it.

Serves 6

500g/1lb shortcrust pastry

500g/1lb winter squash puree

6 shallots or small onions, finely chopped

1 small bunch of flat-leaved parsley, chopped

1 egg beaten

12 teaspoon ground cinnamon

salt and black pepper

egg yolk or milk for brushing the pastry

60ml/2fl oz single cream

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Meanwhile roll out the pastry and use two-thirds of it to line a medium pie dish, leaving 3cm (1in) of pastry to hang over the edge. Save the rest for the lid.

Mash the shallots and the parsley into the squash with the egg and cinnamon. Season to taste, spread the mash into the lined pie dish and add the lid, folding the spare pastry over the top. Brush the pie with egg yolk or milk and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top is golden-brown. Just before serving, cut carefully round the lid at the edge of the folded pastry, lift this section off and pour in the cream before replacing the lid. Serve hot with steamed vegetables or a thick tomato sauce, or cold with a salad or on its own.

RED CAMARGUE RICE STUFFING FOR SQUASH

I have suggested Acorn, but any of the small varieties such as Cold Nugget or Sweet Dumpling could be substituted.

Serves 4

200g/8oz red Camargue rice

100g/4oz raisins

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 small red pepper, chopped

1 small green pepper, chopped

50g/2oz pine nuts

pepper

4 Acorn squashes, prepared for stuffing

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Cook the rice in boiling salted water for 30 minutes, then take it off the heat and leave it to stand for 20 minutes before rinsing and draining it. Meanwhile, pour boiling water over the raisins and leave them to plump up for 30 minutes before draining them.

In a large frying pan, heat the oil and fry the peppers and onion until the onion is translucent. Add the drained rice and toss for a couple of minutes. Add the raisins, the pine nuts and pepper to your taste, and toss well. Spoon the mixture into the squashes, and stand them in a roasting pan. Pour 3cm (1in) boiling water into the pan, cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes.

Serve one squash to each diner, with a crisp salad and some good bread.

ROSEMARY MOON'S KABOCHA BREAD

Makes 2 large loaves

1 Kabocha squash (weighing about 1kg/2lb 4oz)

salt and ground black pepper

olive oil for drizzling

25g/1oz fresh yeast

300ml/12 pint lukewarm water

675g/1lb 8oz strong white bread flour

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Cut the squash into six and remove the seeds, then place in a small roasting tin, and season lightly. Drizzle with olive oil and roast for 45 minutes. Leave to cool. Scoop out the flesh, then blend in a blender or food processor.

Crumble the yeast into the warm water, leave for two to three minutes, then stir to make sure it has dissolved completely. Mix the mustard with the pureed squash. Mix the flour with the salt in a large bowl, then make a well in the middle of the mixture and add the olive oil, the puree and the yeast liquid. Mix to a smooth manageable dough, adding flour or water as necessary. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, then flour the bowl and return the dough. Cover and leave in a warm place for about one hour.

Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead. Divide in two, then shape each piece into a long fat sausage. Place on a lightly greased and floured baking sheet, cover with a damp cloth. Leave to rise again for 30 to 40 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Slash the loaves diagonally a number of times, then bake for 35-40 minutes, until dark golden. The base should sound hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes.

DELICATA SQUASH ICE-CREAM

Use Delicata or Sweet Dumpling for the full flavour but Acorn would make an acceptable substitute.

Serves 4

yolks of 2 large eggs

100g/4oz caster sugar

250g/8oz squash puree

200ml /7fl oz whipping cream

5-6 drops of vanilla essence

Beat the egg yolks with half the sugar until they are pale and creamy, and leave a trail across the surface when you lift the whisk. Stir in the puree and mix well. Beat the cream with the rest of the sugar until it is quite stiff, then fold it into the squash mixture.

If you have an ice-cream machine, put the mixture in and let the machine get on with it. Otherwise, spread the mixture evenly in a wide flat dish and put it in the freezer. Leave it for about three hours then take it out and beat it with a fork to break up the ice crystals and soften it up, then put it back to the freezer for another two hours, after which you can serve it.

If you want to keep it longer, transfer it to a more appropriate container and return it to the freezer. Allow it to soften in the fridge for about 30 minutes before serving.

SQUASH CHEESECAKE

This is very rich, but the richness is offset by the lime juice, and the strips of zest contrast nicely with the orangey-cream filling. Any firm-fleshed squash can be used, but Delicata or Sweet Dumpling will give the tastiest result.

Serves 8-10

250g/8oz digestive biscuits, crushed

100g/4oz butter, melted

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

zest from 1 lime

3 tablespoons water

4 tablespoons caster sugar

250ml/8fl oz double cream

250g/8oz cream cheese

3 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons plain flour, sifted

250g/8oz squash puree

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Grease a cake tin. Mix the crushed biscuits with the melted butter and light brown sugar, then press this mix into the bottom and sides of the cake tin. Bake for 8-10 minutes and leave to cool.

Put the lime zest in a small pan with the water and 2 tablespoons of the caster sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for 4-5 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

Stir 2 tablespoons of the caster sugar into the double cream until the sugar has dissolved. Leave this to stand.

Soften the cream cheese and beat in the eggs, flour, squash puree and lime juice. Pour this mixture over the base, and bake until almost set - 40-45 minutes. Spoon the cream and sugar mixture over the top and return it to the oven for 5 minutes. Then take the cake out of the oven and, leaving it in the tin, let it cool completely before chilling it in the fridge at least 12 hours. Decorate with the lime zest before serving.

THE VARIETIES TO LOOK OUT FOR

ACORN

Looking more like a segmented ox-heart than an acorn, these are dark green, white or gold, and weigh about 1kg (2lb). They are hard-skinned and keep well, and are useful for baking whole or stuffing. Most are cream- fleshed, although some can be yellow. They have a delicate chestnut flavour that goes well with fish, mild cheeses and chicken. Cultivar names include Table Ace and Table Queen. They are available in shops.

BUTTERCUP

Almost square, these are dark green with some paler striping and a large depression at the flower end. They weigh in at 3-4kg (6-9lb). The dense sweet golden flesh is excellent for mash, or for baking. Most likely to be found in farm shops or pick-your-own farms.

BUTTERNUT

A smooth-skinned pale beige squash. The bell end contains the seeds, while the cylindrical end is solid flesh, useful for dishes that require evenly shaped slices. Sweet-fleshed, they are suitable for puddings as well as savoury dishes. They are freely available in shops and supermarkets. Small ones are less well flavoured than the larger ones, which weigh in at 1kg (2lb).

CROWN PRINCE

Considered by some to be the best variety, these squashes have dense gold flesh, and are extremely good keepers. I've kept them for up to eight months. A flat round fruit with fairly hard, pale green/grey skin and gold flesh, they weigh in at 3-4kg (6-9lb). They are beginning to be more widely available.

DELICATA (sometimes called "potato" squash)

They weigh about 750g (1lb 8oz), and are cylindrical, with skin that is almost white with green stripes and speckles when first picked, but turns yellow with gold markings in storage. They keep up to eight months. A new version called Sugar Loaf is now available, slightly smaller with rounder fruits. The flesh is sweet and chestnutty flavoured. Becoming available in supermarkets, but you may have to go to a pick-your-own farm.

HUBBARD

Hard-skinned, usually bright orange, but also available in dark green and blue. The flesh is deep gold and particularly useful for cakes and breads. Keeps up to six months. This is the one most likely to be offered by non-specialist seed companies, but because it is quite large at 3-4kg (6-9lb), you are less likely to find it in the supermarkets.

KABOCHA

A small squash with hard green or red skin, this has fairly soft flesh. Most specimens available in shops will be about 1kg (2lb). Quite a good keeper, it can be used for most of the dishes that follow.

SWEET DUMPLING

Short and squat, weighing about 500g (1lb), this is sometime offered in seed catalogues as "edible gourd". Rather like sweet peppers in shape, they are almost white with green stripes and speckles when picked, but turn yellow with gold markings as they mature in storage. They keep up to eight months. The flesh is sweet and chestnutty, like Delicata. Not available in supermarkets but extensively grown on pick-your-own farms.

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